Uniting, Envisioning and Empowering Orlando Businesses
After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, hotels and resorts, which were the mainstay of the Orlando economy, looked like schools on summer break. Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty (2001-11) surveyed the situation and quickly came to the conclusion that the economic base of Orlando had to diversify.
To address the problem, he brought together two of the biggest players in the area, Walt Disney World and the University of Central Florida, as partners with the county. From that strategic alliance came the conclusion that the county needed to expand the traditional economic model of recruiting and relocating existing businesses by releasing the entrepreneurial potential that was lying dormant or underdeveloped in the area – basically a home-grown economic model, which if you visit the National Entrepreneur Center (NEC) located in Fashion Square Mall, you’ll see everywhere in their gardening design motif.
In less than five years, it helped Orlando to be recognized by a Business Journals’ survey as the #1 “City for Starting and Growing a Small Business,” and a few years later by Entrepreneur magazine as one of the “10 Best Cities to Start a Business.” The publication stated, “Intergovernmental and private cooperation turned the city into one of the most highly coordinated entrepreneurial engines in the country.” Jerry Ross, the executive director of the NEC, added, “Our first ace is that we have civic leadership that is entrepreneurially supportive.”
A “Switzerland” for Business
Originally, NEC was called the Disney Entrepreneur Center, a branding coup that certainly helped in its formative years, though it was never a part of corporate Disney. But since the purpose was to serve well beyond its local reach (i.e. personally, online and through seminars) the name was changed in 2011 to the National Entrepreneur Center. Since its inception in 2003, the Center and the other business support organizations located there have coached and trained over 100,000 entrepreneurs.
It was the “shared facility” approach – addressing the typical “turf wars” that so often hamstring development initiatives – that was one of their initial goals. As you come through their specially designed mall entrance, on one side are the offices and multiple conference and classrooms of the NEC and on the other side are the offices and shared resources that are home to a dozen different chambers, associations, government representatives and university resources (see side bar). Ross describes all of these various support entities being under one roof as “a Switzerland for business development.”
“All the organizations the NEC is home to are nonprofits with one primary mission,” Ross explained, “to grow small businesses.” Thus it made sense to share resources, from copy machines and conference rooms, to receptionists and phone systems. By pooling their assets, everyone benefits. Today, all during office hours and nearly every night of the week, auditoriums, classrooms and offices are filled with counselors, consultants and trainers, working to help make all types of businesses work.
New Name, New Location, New Results
Ross, who has several entrepreneurial successes under his belt, was asked to serve as a business marketing counselor for the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC was one of the first tenants of the Disney Entrepreneur Center back in 2003, but Ross left to pursue business interests of his own. When the Center decided that being under the auspices of a governmental entity, the Small Business Administration (SBA), was not the best solution for managing an organization of this type, Ross submitted his application for executive director as a part of their nationwide search and was selected.
Not long after taking over he began to ponder the economics of their downtown location, overlooking Lake Eola. He also thought about the impact it was having on the people they were trying to serve. The organization also realized the benefits of consolidating so clients didn’t have to travel all over the city to meet with various organizations or pay, sometimes prohibitive, parking expenses or have to overcome the intimidation of going into the lofty, fountained lobby of a downtown office building.
Amazingly, Ross met John Crossman, the representative of Fashion Square Mall, who explained their company wanted to move from “big box” retail to mixed use. Though the mall had over 100 retail leases at the time, they put up $1.8 million for the renovation and, what Ross describes as a “miracle,” in 2011 the new facility for the newly named Center was born.
The results have been astounding – walk-in inquiries increased from 50 to 250 per month, while overhead went down $50,000 per year. Borrowing from a phrase Ross heard at a conference on small business development back in 2003, he concluded with his characteristic smile, the Center succeeds because “we have unity of purpose and a continuity of effort.”