How Visionary Realism is Uniting Central Florida
By Eric Wright
John W. Gardner, one of the sage voices of “The Greatest Generation,” said, “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” Turning challenges and needs into social and economic opportunities is what the emerging focus on regional thinking is giving rise to. But in examining how that approach is developing, another one of Gardner’s comments is instructive: “No more regionalism for its own sake. The future demands tough, pragmatic regionalism – clear purposes, strong strategies.”
A growing number of area leaders have embraced Gardner’s approach and passion for the transformative power of embracing clear-eyed regional paradigms. One of the thought leaders and evangelists behind the philosophy of cooperation that is defining the region is Jacob Stuart, the president of the Central Florida Partnership. As Stuart put it, “We embraced partnership because the challenges and opportunities we face are too big for one organization, one corporation, one institution or even one city or county to face alone.
“Beginning with Disney, then the growth of one of the greatest airports in the world and the second largest university in the country, there came another, less heralded development and yet just as important. It was that the region is the economy of the new century – which is not what it was like when I came. It was city based; it was a more limited mentality.”
As many of us know, in the last 50 years, Central Florida mushroomed from a winter retreat for visiting snow birds, with a prosperous agriculture industry, made up of seven counties and 86 municipalities. Today, it is the center of international tourism, space exploration and now modeling, simulation and training, as well as aerospace manufacturing and medical research. The loose connections and the various stars that once characterized the region are now evolving into a single constellation of synergistic growth.
“Even how we describe and define states by ‘borders,’ counties by ‘lines’ and cities by ‘limits,’ underscores that these descriptors are both restrictive and in many cases archaic in designating the organic nature of our economic connectedness. People work in one municipality, live in another and their recreational activities carry them into another,” Stuart observed. Scott Faris, the current chair of the Orlando Economic Development Commission (EDC) agrees: “Business doesn’t operate in defined geographical regions; by its very nature it drives us toward a regional approach.”
What some might call a fortuitous “accident of geography” and a confluence of opportunities, Central Florida has grown into the 19th largest economy in the country. One of the driving factors in that growth, according to Faris, is “moving beyond our celebrated quality of life ‘geographically’ to a matching ‘investment-based’ quality of life, which is seen in transportation, education and culture.”
The region boasts seaports and spaceports, multiple airports, rail transport for cargo and now rail ports for passengers, along with an ever expanding automobile transit infrastructure to provide vital connections. With a tourism industry that is approaching 60 million annual visitors and technological and medical sectors that could rival other innovation nexuses around the world, the region is at a tipping point.
“Regions are how the global economy is organized; it isn’t that we just thought of a delta to create a positive differential in our offerings, it is the reality of how economies work,” Stuart explained. “Today, regions are markets and markets drive the economy. It isn’t states, counties or cities anymore, it is regions.”
With regional drivers like the University of Central Florida, “The Partnership University,” and the Central Florida Partnership, which works through four lines of business – Orlando, Inc. (regional entrepreneurship), BusinessForce (regional public policy advisory), MyRegion.org (regional research and resolves) and Leadership Orlando (regional leadership) – the goal of moving “Ideas to Results” is becoming a reality.
Infrastructure & Transportation
Few issues are as complex or more crucial to economic prosperity and quality of life than infrastructure and transportation. Like the body’s circulatory system, infrastructure keeps a region alive and able to support quality growth. Few understand its significance and complexity better than George Walton, the regional manager (over nine states) of Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the world’s leading planning, engineering and construction management organizations with approximately 14,000 employees.
For Walton, both corporately and personally, civic engagement was important, and involvement with the Central Florida Partnership was a perfect vehicle. His professional experience allowed him to advocate for the Partnership’s transportation agenda and work in the business community to explain how projects develop, the importance of infrastructure and how it fits into the fabric of the local economy.
“When you begin to align regional priorities, you realize there is a lot of commonality. Infrastructure is a common cause and a common solution to what most communities need. The majority of people don’t view infrastructure issues in terms of jurisdictional boundaries or who is responsible to pay for which part. They just want to get to work or their child’s school or soccer match; that is how they see the world. There are always people who are for and against things, but most understand why infrastructure is important and where it is important,” Walton said.
Describing the overarching goal, he added, “It is vital to focus on how to deliver a seamless, multi-model solution. When we are able to shift the conversation so people can understand that transportation is not simply talk about a road, a bus or a train, we can focus on these facilities as community assets which allow us to advance our overall economy. Then by the end of the day, regardless of one’s political persuasion, and these often are political issues, access to jobs, to schools, to quality of life enhancements are all recognized as being on the back of infrastructure. This includes the costs of goods, workforce development and a business’s access to customers. That change of perspective changes the conversation.” Thus, everyone has a stake in infrastructure development.
This is also an area where the region has had incredible success. One of the most visible is SunRail. What isn’t known to the general population is that every county commission in the seven-county Central Florida region passed the same resolution in support of SunRail, even the ones that SunRail might never run through. As John Walsh, CEO of Port Canaveral, said, “We supported SunRail, because we understood that if commuter and passenger rail failed in Orlando, there was little hope we would ever see rail connections to the Port”.
At the same time, the expansion of I-4 and funding for the Wekiva Parkway were approved, which completed the Central Florida Beltway. This helps achieve smart growth objectives while fulfilling the community’s commitment to sustainability on one of the region’s most beautiful and environmentally-sensitive amenities. Waiting in the wings is the latest passenger rail initiative, All-Aboard Florida.
Within two years, the new privately-owned passenger train system will be making some 32 trips a day between Orlando International Airport and Miami. The company already has land and capital for three state-of-the-art stations near commuter rail and bus lines in south Florida.
Its 125-mph trains will run on tracks the parent company, Florida East Coast Industries, and Flagler Development own. They have also purchased 22 miles of right-of-way alongside the Beachline Expressway to the airport authority’s planned (and funded) $215 million train-and-bus terminal.
“The logic is simple: for trips less than three hours, people will usually drive”, explained All Aboard Florida’s Chief Operating Officer Don Robinson. “For trips of four or five hours, people will fly. Three hours is optimal for rail, putting All Aboard Florida’s principle market in Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.”
No other region can boast transportation modes of airports, railports, a seaport and a spaceport. One of the most promising developments for the region is the shift at Port Canaveral to becoming Central Florida’s cargo port. The Port has built its reputation around its ever-increasing cruise industry, which is expected to grow by 25 percent in the next two years. Like Orlando International Airport, Port Canaveral is Central Florida’s gateway to the world.
Walsh said, “The Port belongs to and is part of the region. We are connected to the 60 million tourists that visit Orlando every year, where cruises become the ‘two-vacations-in-one’ option. Now, we are reaching out to all the businesses in the region to say, ‘How can we serve your business and become your marine gateway, both in and out?’ We are in discussion with Orlando International Airport because perishable goods (e.g. fruits, vegetables and flowers) that arrive on our coasts are often distributed by air. Those airlines hold a lot of cargo potential.”
Central to their positioning is the $35 million project to widen Port Canaveral’s 400-feet wide harbor by 100 feet and deepen the entrance by two feet to 46 feet, along with the installation of cranes to handle container ships coming through the Panama Canal. The next step is to connect the Port to rail links, which could make central and north Brevard a major distribution hub. Walsh continued, “To be in the container business we needed a terminal operator connected to the world, but before they were willing to come we had to invest in the cranes and the cargo dock improvements to make that viable.
“Central Florida is a trucking market, so if we can cut the travel time significantly, we can attract that business. However, we also need product to go out. Since the states north of us have more manufacturing, to connect to them via rail is essential. Our advantage is that we are a modern port, with the ability for ships to come in, unload and then reload and be out in the same day. In (the Port of) Savannah, that process could take three days.”
Maintaining the Talent & Innovation Pipeline
Foundational to moving an innovation economy forward is ensuring the talent stream supporting the development of every sector, particularly science and technology, continues to be unobstructed. Though the area is known internationally as a tourist destination, the Orlando EDC’s campaign, “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.” is championing a parallel message of the region’s economic diversity. The region’s growth as the epicenter for modeling, simulation and training, its historic position as a leader in aerospace and the growing biomedical sector are all just beginning to demonstrate our true potential.
To both nurture homegrown entrepreneurialism and to attract the companies to our area, a pipeline of highly skilled and trained personnel are a priority. Robert Utsey of Skanska USA Building recently joined a delegation of the Orlando EDC that met with site selectors in New York City. He commented, “Workforce is the number one criteria for site selectors. Fortunately, they discovered a great sustainable workforce in Central Florida.”
This includes Florida Institute of Technology on the east coast, Stetson University in DeLand, Rollins College in Winter Park and the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Of equal significance are the community colleges that have evolved into state colleges, which boast an enrollment of nearly 200,000!
Soon, another gem will be added to our talent-generating crown when Florida Polytechnic University opens in Lakeland. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Florida will need to fill 411,000 STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) positions by 2018. Florida Poly is focusing on helping to meet this demand by targeting the student trifecta of those that are technology driven, innovative and entrepreneurial.
ROI & Downstream Value
Connecting innovation with job creation is a science that is being finely honed in the region. The Central Florida High Tech Corridor Council, created in 1995 to keep over 1,500 jobs and billions of dollars in investment from going overseas, was formed by UCF President John Hitt and then USF President Betty Castor, along with Randy Berridge who became the Council’s president.
According to Berridge, who was then an executive with AT&T, Hitt asked him, “What do you have here that if you went offshore you would lose?” Berridge’s immediate response was “research,” which the universities and their graduate students were helping to supply. Hitt, Castor and Berridge were then able to broker an arrangement that pledged university research totaling $20 million over 10 years.
Berridge added, “Dr. Hitt later said, ‘If we can do something with the strength of two universities to assist a company the size of AT&T, why couldn’t you do it with companies of all sizes?’ The result is that over the last 18 years the Council has partnered with over 400 companies on over 1,200 applied research projects. The companies do not get these funds directly, but indirectly by using their funds to match state funds, which then engage professors and their graduate students in doing the research the company needs; this is the Matching Grants Program.
“The Council has invested $60 million, which has been matched by $160 million in participating company funds and resources. Though that is an amazing return on investment, the real story is over $1 billion in downstream value to the region by way of the companies and the universities. We have independent companies which analyze this downstream value.”
Nurturing Regional Thinking
“MyRegion.org was born a decade ago when the economy and the region were in a vastly different place. The focus was on the quality of life in a place that had a very bright future, yet without a firm grasp on what we wanted to be or should be. One sociologist at the time described the area as a culture of ‘armchair quarterbacks,’ who simply sat back and reacted to visions and proposals either pro or con. The region didn’t have a clear vision of where we were going,” explained Mark Brewer of the Central Florida Foundation and chair of MyRegion.org.
“If we didn’t start thinking like a region, versus counties or cities, there would be representation in the region, but no real collaboration. When Orlando, Inc. began to consider ‘region priorities,’ the public sector leadership realized they didn’t have the data to form those ideas and directives. MyRegion.org was formed as a think tank to connect action to data, without promoting any particular agenda. It simply looked at the region now and 50 years from now and asked, ‘What if we do nothing?’ Quality of life was the first crucial issue.”
Four key themes emerged: “Conservation, Countryside, Centers and Corridors.” This collective focus sought to preserve local character and natural assets and how to nurture positive growth and attract the kinds of businesses that would increase the wage earning potential of people in the region. This collective focus empowered results like Medical City in east Orlando, the growth of the Central Florida Research Park and the burgeoning aerospace industry at Melbourne International Airport, which includes Brazilian execujet manufacturer Embraer and the recent announcement of close to 2,000 jobs being brought here by Northrop Grumman.
Stuart concluded, “We want a better quality of life for the people that live here and for the people that will live here, but don’t yet know it. These assests reach across the region and enrich the area, not just a particular city. It has been exciting to play a small part, being in a position to help others succeed, which takes me back to where I began, helping business people in my father’s office supply store.”