When you talk to someone not familiar with the region that you work in Orlando, the most common response is something along the lines of, “What’s it like working at a theme park?” Although it’s not necessarily bad be perceived as a tourism driven economy, because that’s what the area is for the most part, it’s not all the region has to offer.
In fact, a paradigm shift has been slowly working for years, shifting the economy away from tourism to diversify the region into a world-class center for big business and startup entrepreneurs alike. Many leaders say this economic diversity is key to ensuring future growth and continued success for our region for generations to come, and it’s happening right now.
“I think we have a strong economic and brand identity, but that perception is not necessarily the reality of what we have here today,” says Raymond Gilley, president and CEO of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission (EDC). “Yes, we’re a top visitor destination; however we want to increase the diversity of our marketplace, increase the number of businesses that are here and ultimately increase the number of career and job opportunities that are here for our citizens.”
Orlando was recently ranked as the seventh best city to start a small business according to BizJournals, and the fourth most popular city based on where people want to live, according to Pew Research Center. In large part, those rankings are due to the business-friendly environment that stresses diversity created by organizations like the EDC and its partners, coupled with the area’s natural resources, tax laws and ease of access.
The end result is quickly becoming a diversified region, promoted as a top business destination for a variety of industries, sectors and clusters. In fact the region is already host to diverse, high-tech companies in modeling and simulation; photonics and optics; aviation and aerospace; financial services and more.
It has been driven by forward thinking leadership coupled with a slower population growth and increased emphasis on public education. “Having a good K-12 school system along with the university and community colleges is a big help,” says Dr. Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at UCF. “That alone is going to attract companies to this region if they know they can get qualified, skilled workers to fill their firms.”
Continued diversification, which includes technology, health and general business will help drive the economy moving forward, according to Gilley, carving out an even stronger economic identity for decades to come. “These industries provide innovative solutions to businesses all over the world, and that allows us to create more jobs both now and in the future,” he says. One such example is the booming technology industry housed here that employs more than 53,000 people and has an economic impact of $13.4 billion.
But, it’s not enough. The next step involves continued development of the multiple resources, transportation and education initiatives already in place. “Those factors are the driving forces for most businesses,” says Gilley. “They want to be a proactive environment with an educated, talented and productive workforce that is scalable in size and we are working continuously to make ourselves more attractive to them.”
In addition to being host of several high-level private and public education options, Orlando was also recently awarded dollars for commuter rail and high-speed rail, which will not only alleviate traffic, but also work to attract more businesses to the area. “We already have a world-class airport. Now that we’re adding other forms of affordable mass transit on the ground to move people and goods it opens up tremendous amounts of employment opportunities and makes the region look that much more attractive,” Gilley says.
According to Snaith, the area is better prepared for the future, in part, thanks to our prior dependence on the tourism industry. “We’ve learned a lot of painful lessons about diversification over the course of the financial crisis and recession,” he says. “Being too tied into either tourism or construction will have a disastrous effect on the economy, but when you’ve got a diversified economy you’ve got more of a safety net to fall back on when a crisis like this one impacts the area.”
Snaith continues, “The things that are going on here help make us a national trendsetter.” The projects he refers to are those like the medical city in Lake Nona. Orlando is one of only two communities in the world building such a cluster of life sciences companies. The end result will be an estimated 30,000 jobs with $7.6 billion in economic impact.
If needed, incentive programs are in place to help bring large nonprofits, like the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in Lake Nona, to the area in the future as well. “When you’re trying to create a catalyst for an industry and engage a company like Burnham, the level of incentives go to quite a higher level because nonprofit companies like that have no ability to expand beyond where they are without complete funding in both operations and capital,” says Gilley. “The state is fairly conservative with its incentive program, looking for value and return on investment, as it should be; but it remains something we must have access to as a tool to be used judiciously and applied to the right kinds of projects.”
No matter how it’s reached, the long term goal is to create a strong, thriving economy that helps lead the area to a better tomorrow. “Building an economy is a never-ending task and it takes a broad team effort of both private and public partners to get that done, which we have,” says Gilley. “I think our future is very bright; we’re going to have to continue to invest wisely, plan strategically and play to our strengths regarding future business centers and communities where people will live, work and play.”
Article by Corey Gehrold