“Orlando. You Don’t Know the Half of It.”
Though he has an international reputation as an economic “rainmaker,” to Rick Weddle, president and CEO of the Orlando Economic Development Commission, economic development is more like a downpour that you catch, or better yet, see approaching and prepare the ground for, rather than something anyone “makes.” That being said, it is having the foresight to recognize unique opportunities, along with the vision to leverage local assets that brings transformation to regions and economies, a talent Weddle has spent a lifetime honing.
“I always found the margins on luck are better than the margins on skill,” Weddle said grinning. “Therefore, I always worked hard to be prepared to realize opportunities and luck when it came. A lot of people are run over by luck they don’t see coming.
“People sometimes look at my career track and think I am some sort of strategic mastermind to orchestrate my career the way it has unfolded. But it only appears elegant. Looking back at the time, especially when I got started, I was just a young guy who tried to make the most of what presented itself. Economic development is a lot like that also. You work hard, but the key is to work smart, to see and seize the golden opportunities,” he explained.
This strategy can be seen in this region’s economic development. It was the impetus behind building SR 528 (Beachline Expressway) to link the growing space center on the coast with Orlando, to the establishment of a regional transportation hub, Orlando International Airport, and to prepare the kind of infrastructure that attracted Disney. It caused area leaders to lobby for university funding, which produced what is now the second largest university in the nation, UCF, to provide a talent pipeline for NASA, what is now Lockheed/Martin, and the burgeoning modeling and simulation industry.
Like all of these examples, economic development always includes a sometimes precarious balance of risk and reward. The leaders of economic development, like Weddle, can be described as, “more congregational ministers rather than solitary prophets,” because the success of this type of work depends on a monumental level of cooperation and collaboration.
The Other Side of the Coin
Like the tagline of the popular Geico commercials, “Everybody knows that,” Orlando has a worldwide reputation for its major entertainment attractions, especially Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld. Between these and other venues, along with the flourishing convention industry, Orlando attracted 59 million visitors in 2013.
What everyone doesn’t know, even the local population, is that alongside the area’s tourism and entertainment industry is a growing and diversified economy that has expanded enormously. Among its most important industry sectors are high technology, aviation and aerospace, medicine and biotechnology, film and television production, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.
It is a legacy of success the Orlando EDC has been building for years, but has seemed to kick into overdrive since Weddle took the helm in 2011. Now, it is on the verge of taking a quantum leap as the region anticipates the impact of the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center.
Since its start in 1977, the Orlando EDC has assisted thousands of companies to relocate, expand and grow in Orlando. This has led to more than 176,000 jobs announced, over $9.5 billion in capital investment, and more than 79.7 million square feet of office and industrial space leased or constructed. In addition, more than 2,000 film and television production projects have been filmed here during the past 10 years.
To explain the region’s economic diversity and growing reputation as one of the leading hubs for high tech development, the Orlando EDC came up with a simple, but descriptive slogan. It begs the question both to companies and relocation experts around the world and it helps those who live in the area grasp the paradigm shift Central Florida is going through: “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.”
Weddle said, “We were talking to a national site selection organization in another state and we set a button on the table in front of them and immediately they said, ‘I get it.’ Then added, ‘You would be amazed at how many municipal and regional economic development groups come in here with the most convoluted ad campaigns and slogans. Even after they explain it to us, we don’t get it. But this, we knew immediately what you were driving at.’”
The Journey to Where We Are
Growing up in Oklahoma in the 1960s, like many, Weddle was full of idealism and world-changing zeal. He started his career with a degree in public administration with a concentration in urban management and got a job in McAlester, Okla., his hometown, in industrial development. When he married his wife Ginger, he went into private business to ensure they wouldn’t have to leave that community, as public administration practically guarantees a Bedouin lifestyle as your career and reputation grows.
Going into commercial real estate development, Weddle enjoyed success, but wanted more opportunity for his children and decided to go back into the career he left, which he did, and was able to set up the first National Bank Community Development Corporation in Oklahoma and the eighth in the U.S. He then went to work for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce to manage their marketing and assist the economic development program.
A month later, the guy who hired him quit. Weddle recalls, “I was really green and hardly knew ‘come here’ from ‘sic em’.” Nevertheless, nine months later, at 31, he became the VP of economic development. “It was luck; I was afforded an opportunity, but it agreed with me and I went with it.” From there, Weddle went on to enjoy success helping lead what became known as the “Toledo Turnaround,” then had similar results in North Carolina, California and Phoenix.
Before coming to Orlando, he was involved in adding new energy to the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, where he served as president and CEO. “In the military, there are more promotions in war than in peace,” Weddle said, “and the same thing is true in economic development. We went to where there were needs.”
Lessons In Life
“One thing I learned early on in McAlester,” he reflected, “was that a job isn’t easy to come by and a good job is almost unheard of. Somehow the opportunity to fulfill that desire I had from the beginning, to change the world, how and where I could, from the inside out, coalesced around spending a lifetime finding ways to create those payroll opportunities for John and Mary Doe; to help foster what we used to call ‘Bread Winner’ jobs, which makes a difference at the most significant level.”
Weddle also spoke at length about very significant mentors along the way, who were, in his words, “very impactful in a short period of time.”
“I learned from them that integrity is not a matter of degree,” he said, “that you can’t be partially honest. No opportunity is worth a career and no career is worth sacrificing for an opportunity. If we can’t do it with integrity, we won’t do it.
“Also, the job isn’t really as difficult as people sometimes make it out to be. There is a perception out there that if something is really big, it has to be a Herculean task and very complex, when actually it is pretty simple, involving just a few key elements: 1) It must be a program of substance; 2) There must be an engaged and inspired public and private leadership; 3) You need a strong and effective staff; and 4) Adequate funding. If you have all of those elements, with a good dose of integrity, things get done.”
Weddle adds that nothing in life is as compelling as a good story and he is always quick with an anecdote to make his point, explaining that all his mentors were good storytellers. “Stories help you engage and understand what would otherwise be a difficult concept to grasp.”
He also said you have to find people with a strong sense of ownership and passion for the project who hold themselves to account. “Those people will be creative,” he said. “They don’t take no for an answer and keep going when everyone else is tired and gives up.”
Helping Write the Rest of Orlando’s Story
In every life, there is some magnum opus and for Weddle, it may well be the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Osceola County, though he would be quick to correct anyone who claimed sole responsibility for the composition that is far from completion.
Nevertheless, it was Weddle, along with Dr. John Hitt, M.J. Soileau, Randy Berridge, Charles Gray and others, who saw the opportunity a complex like SEMATECH in Austin or Albany, N.Y.’s Tech Valley could have on this area.
When the early sites didn’t work out, his work with Osceola County made him realize they were primed for an opportunity such as this. “I don’t think anyone can overemphasize the scope of what this could mean – up to 20,000 jobs and $2 billion
“But remember,” he concluded, “this is to position ourselves to catch the next wave of innovation; to provide the technology to make the smart sensor and photonics industries commercially viable. But what I think we also need to begin focusing on is what is next beyond that, what science and industry do we need to start pursuing now, to be ready then?”