Ocala firefighters, police officers, dignitaries and members of the public came together Friday morning during a groundbreaking ceremony for the city’s new MLK First Responder Campus.
Located in the 500 block of NW Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the campus will house a new Ocala Fire Rescue station and administration offices, a police department substation and a community building complete with a basketball court for the community to use.
“It is going to be a $7 million project that’s going to positively impact this area for insurance, response times, crime rates, medical and hepatitis A shots, mentoring programs – everything that both of our agencies can possibly provide to impact the area,” said Fire Chief Shane Alexander.
Alexander said he and other city officials are excited about the large community room and basketball court that will be available for members of the community to use, especially since the area has a high unemployment rate and faces other issues as well.
“Us putting a $7 million project there, we’re going to have every positive impact that we can have on that,” he said, citing things like having the fire station collect leftover syringes, offer hepatitis A vaccines and free CPR classes, and serve as a facility where residents can come after hurricanes to get water, cool off in the air conditioning and use bath services if needed.
Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham said he’s particularly excited to have his officers stationed in the area again. He recalled how in 1983 there was a district office near where the new complex will be built and then later on W. Hwy. 40. But he said the police department had to vacate the building because of some issues with the facility, thereby losing that constant presence in the community.
“The impact that we made in this community just by being here was incredible,” he said. “Not just for the people that live in the community, but for the law enforcement officers. That was our home so we took ownership of this area and we made a huge impact.”
Since leaving the prior facility, Graham said his officers have worked in the community but not lived there, which he called a huge difference.
“The excitement level that I have and I know that my staff has is just tremendous,” he said. “This truly is going to be a state-of-the-art facility. It’s going to do a great deal of improvement for this area and it’s really going to bring us back home.”
Graham added that he’s also excited about what the community building and basketball court will mean to the residents of the surrounding neighborhood.
“It’s going to be a game-changer for everybody,” he said. “You’re going to see cops, firefighters and community members playing basketball, or meeting, having food and getting together in the community room.”
Mayor Kent Guinn agreed.
“It’s for the community so people can gather there and do good things,” he said. “It’s in a great location and this is much needed,” he added, while paying to tribute to recently retired City Manager John Zobler for having such a vision.
“I’m glad to see it’s coming to fruition and look forward to being in the community again,” he said.