The Ocala Wetland Recharge Park, which re-opened Friday morning to the public, has already garnered over 35,000 visitors in only the first six months of its existence.
The estimate came from city officials during a grand re-opening ceremony attended by dozens of residents, local dignitaries, and elected officials.
“The park opened operations in September of last year, and we’ve had over 35,000 people visit it already. We are proud to attract visitors across the region, state, country and some from other continents,” said Ocala City Council President Pro-Tem Brent Malever. Malever indicated that the city had recorded license plates on vehicles visiting from as far as Alaska.
According to Martin Schwartz, the President of the Marion County Audubon Society, his organization has observed over 140 distinct bird species at the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park. The group, which is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation, believes the new park will help draw large swaths of birds and birdwatchers will be close behind.
“That’s an incredible total [of bird species] for a wetland park that’s just been developed,” said Schwartz. “In short, this wetland has become a birding hotspot which attracts visitors from a very wide area, which creates a positive economic impact for both our city and our county,” said Schwartz. Schwartz praised the park for establishing bird-friendly ecosystems anchored by “native and bird-friendly plants.”
Yvonne Hayes Hinson, who represents District 20 in the Florida House of Representatives, suggested that the best was yet to come, making comparisons to a similar project in Gainesville that has grown exponentially since opening years ago.
“While I was city commissioner in Gainesville, we created [Sweetwater Wetlands Park] like this over 9 or 10 years ago. It attracts bird watchers and habitat watchers from around the world,” said Hinson. “We have alligators galore, and all kinds of birds that have become very friendly to people.”
Although it took years for the property to find its new purpose, Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn praised the prudent choice by city council to proceed with a park over other options.
“Back in 2006, I was on council and Cisco came to us wanting to put a distribution facility here. It would have been 220,000 square feet on the entire 250 acres and nothing else here. I think council made a great decision to have this park,” said Mayor Guinn.
Originally scheduled for a “flooding event” in the Summer of 2019, the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park faced setbacks in the form of sinkholes that delayed its opening date more than a year.
Earlier this year, the city of Ocala announced that the park would temporarily close for updates, including a collection of exhibits that feature statistics and information about the park and the wildlife drawn to it.
The new exhibits provide a variety information on the park, the wildlife that visits, and the importance of water conservation efforts in the local region and state of Florida.
The park is now open Monday through Sunday, from sunrise to sunset (or 7 p.m., whichever comes first). It is free to enter and there is no fee for parking. For more information on the park, its amenities or the city of Ocala’s ongoing efforts at water conservation, visit the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park website.