Mitchell Coulton has big dreams to help the millions of American women military veterans who are in need of mental-health counseling services.
More than just counseling, though. His plans include housing, transitional training, daycare for children, organic farming and a PTSD equestrian program.
Coulton, an accountant who owns a barber shop in Marion County with his wife, is the unpaid executive director of Women Veterans in Crisis, a nonprofit that has tried to raise awareness for what Coulton proposes as the $220 million Whispering Oaks Ranch, which as of now exists only on paper despite photos on the group’s website of horses, cabins and administration building.
Commissioner Holly Davis, who met Coulton through a mutual friend during her 2020 county commission campaign, invited him to the board meeting with the idea that commissioners could potentially provide the 357-acre tract known as Betz Farm for the ranch.
Commissioners heard from Coulton, but were reluctant to promise anything. They said the Betz Farm property near Crystal River, given to the county in 2003 by the Tamposi family in exchange for Citrus Hills impact-fee credits, is worth over $5 million and should be sold for private development.
"I'm in no hurry to get rid of that property," Commissioner Jeff Kinnard said.
Davis, who said Citrus County would benefit economically with a national mental-health program for women military veterans, said she was impressed with Coulton’s plans.
“We’re not going to give him anything that’s not a direct benefit to the county,” she said. “Right now it’s just an idea.”
Coulton founded Women Veterans in Crisis in 2013, then under the name Project Strait for Veterans. Strait is an acronym for Short Term Residential and Intensive Treatment program.
The Women Veterans in Crisis website, www.wvicrisis.org, is loaded with statistics that show the dire situation women vets have when they return home: high suicide rates, sexual assault, and mental illness among others.
Whispering Oaks Village would house 250 women and 35 children in a ranch-type setting.
Coulton said he spent much of the past year in Washington, D.C., trying to muster congressional support for funding.
He said in a Friday interview, however, that he’s given up that idea and instead is breaking the project into phases, with the first phase estimated at $18 million, which he hopes to receive through a real estate investment trust. Operating dollars would come from billing patient insurance, he said.
The organization’s website could give the impression that Whispering Oaks Ranch is already up and running in Marion County, including what Coulton acknowledged are stock photos of a horse farm.
“Whispering Oaks Ranch is fashioned to resemble an Ocala horse farm, which are prevalent in the area,” the website reads. “This approach reflects the therapeutic movement away from institutional looking facilities and takes advantage of Ocala’s beautiful rolling hills, moss-covered trees and pleasant climate. Additionally, this horse farm environment promotes a significant reduction in client stress levels and provides a perfect setting for our intensive mental health services, equestrian PTSD, organic farming, our 24-hour child care center and other programs.”
Coulton said he is often questioned whether the group offers any services that are mentioned on the website. He said no services are offered yet because the group doesn’t have a trained staff, nor does it have any funding.
“We have to do a better job of clearing that up,” he said.
Davis said the county could consider giving Coulton a letter of support, which the Marion County Board of Commissioners did in 2018.
“He does seem to talk the talk and walk the walk,” she said. “He’s really passionate about this project.”
Coulton said he appreciates Davis inviting him to the county commission, which at least introduced him to Citrus County’s policy makers.
“If anything,” he said, “the commissioners know we’re out there and what we’re trying to do.”