Ocala firefighters, police officers and various dignitaries gathered on NE 8th Avenue Thursday morning for the official dedication of the city’s First Responder Campus.
The new, state-of-the art complex, which houses Ocala Fire Rescue Station No. 1 and the Ocala Police Department’s East District Office, was funded with a portion of the one-percent sales tax that was approved by Marion County voters in 2016. The placement of the complex – a drug house once operated where the police department building now sits – is seen as an advantage for the city and the residents of the Tuscawilla Historic District. And units from both departments have easy access to Silver Springs Boulevard and NE 14th Street from the complex.
“We were able to clean this area up and there’s only good things to come,” Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said. “We always know that bad people don’t like to go where police and fire are, so I think this will do a great job in cleaning up the neighborhood.”
Ocala City Council President Mary Sue Rich said she sees the new campus as a realization of the city being “faithful stewards” of the penny sales tax money. She called it a commitment to revitalize the Tuscawilla Historic District and neighborhoods, parks and businesses. And she said she’s proud that the new campus provides first responders with the resources they need to do their jobs.
“It is my sincere hope that this campus will serve not only as a home and workplace for our first responders, but also as a reminder of our commitment the City of Ocala proudly makes to its citizens and employees,” she said.
For Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Shane Alexander and his firefighters, the new station, which houses a tower truck, a fire engine and a rescue vehicle, is certainly a step up from the former nearby firehouse where crews served for 52 years.
“Our men and women are in a brand new fire station with improved sleeping and kitchen areas,” he said. “So they’re going to have way better amenities. This is part of the city’s commitment to equip our firefighters and our employees as best as they can to serve the public.”
Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham agreed, adding that in the past, the department’s district offices typically have been renovated apartments or houses.
“It just makes you proud to come to work to be able to work out of a facility like this,” he said.
Graham said he also believes that the new campus will help eliminate blight and crime that’s plagued the area in the past.
“Any time we’ve ever moved district offices into areas, it really helps the neighborhood get revitalized,” he said.
Graham added that he’s thrilled to have the two facilities so close together.
“Camaraderie is going to occur between the men and women that work at the fire department and the police department,” he said. “And we’re going to be able to provide a much better service to our community.”
“I would say that the police and the fire department have the best relationship that they’ve ever had,” Alexander said, pointing out that he and Graham meet on a weekly basis. “We partner with a lot of services and we run almost every single call together, so it’s going to improve relations.”
Both Alexander and Graham also agreed that one of the best features about the new campus is its visibility in the neighborhood.
“Sometimes, when you put services back off of a road, they don’t know that your fire or your police station is accessible and open to the public,” he said. “That is a big charge that both Chief Graham and I have is that we have to be open to the public, accessible and easily approachable.”
Graham said he’s counting on the public taking advantage of the many services his department offers to the community.
“We’ve got a community room that people in this neighborhood can come and have meetings,” he said. “They can have a Neighborhood Watch meeting. We’ve had church meetings and all kinds of meetings in our facility.”
Graham added that he takes the responsibility of being transparent to the public quite seriously.
“People can walk in and talk to a police officer, or any police employee if they want,” he said. “It really does improve our service to our community.”
Both chiefs said they’re also appreciative of the high-tech facilities and the advantages offered to their employees. Graham said his headquarters building on S Pine Avenue was built in 1999 and still remains as a sate-of-the-art facility. But he said it pales in comparison to the new district office. And Alexander said he’s thrilled with many features of his new station, including one that very well could aid in saving lives.
“The bay doors open and close automatically, more rapidly, so it may improve our response time by 30 seconds,” he said. “When someone is having a stroke or a heart attack, that could mean the difference between life and death.”
The new first responder campus also is somewhat of a test model for the city, as a second one is planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, between 5th and 7th Street.
“These are exciting times for the City of Ocala and Marion County,” City Manager John Zogler said.