UCF Director of University Economic Development
A night view of the I-4 corridor from space appears like a wide band of light dividing the Florida peninsula into two distinct halves. This wondrous display is not only a testament to the commercial activity across the region; it is a reminder of one of the first economic development efforts launched in the state. This initiative was led not by municipal or regional economic development commissions, but by the power companies to enhance the industrial and residential base of the region. That is where Edward Schons was first introduced to economic development, a passion he exercised as the senior economic development policy manager for Florida Power Corporation, later as chair of the executive committee of the Florida Economic Development Council (FEDC) and today as director of university economic development at UCF.
How It Began
I started with what they called “industrial development” in 1978, with Florida Power Corporation. At the time I was pretty unfamiliar with what that was. Industrial development evolved after World War II as utility companies, like the railroads before them, were interested in growing local economies, by helping businesses that were expanding or planning to relocate. I enjoyed working with communities, companies and fellow employees; it became something I would have never dreamt of doing, but once I became involved it was fascinating.
We helped communities to analyze and diversify their economic base through a program called “Preparing for Growth,” guiding them to answer the questions about what they would need to do if they wanted to change. The fact of the matter is, change happens, and either you leverage it to your advantage or you don’t. One of the early directors of industrial development was Andrew Heinz, who eventually became president of Florida Power Corporation and later Progress Energy. He was a brilliant engineer and understood the responsibility a utility had and how it related to the growth and stability of an economy.
Regionalism is what spawned the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission and other organizations like them. There was a realization that companies don’t look at geographic boundaries; they look at opportunities and resources. The mission hasn’t changed, though the tools certainly have and they have been able to attract some of the brightest and most capable leadership to these organizations.
How It Has Evolved
In 1987, the Florida Chamber of Commerce took on what we called “Project Cornerstone,” which was one of the early organized efforts to say “Where do we want the state to move or what do we want it to look like in the future?” It was an effort to diversify the economic base, while building upon the incredible foundation of the tourism and hospitality industry that we have. The real underlying question is, “How are we helping people improve their life?” From my perspective, the best way to a better life and improvement is a better job, and businesses create those jobs.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce developed six pillars for a different 2030 outcome. Two of those areas that are dear to me are talent and innovation, which is why I am here at UCF. As the “Partnership University,” our institution is designed to provide the region with the talent they need to run their organizations and the new ideas or next ideas that will sustain their global competitive advantage. The other four pillars are infrastructure and growth leadership, sustaining a vibrant business climate and competitiveness, civic and governance systems and quality of life and quality places. Each are important, but I, along with Randy Berridge, Tom O’Neal and M.J. Soileau, have all focused on these areas in different ways.
Innovation is the investment in disruptive technologies that enhances our economic position and entrepreneurship that carries great ideas out into the marketplace. We are not only attracting companies; we are building those systems that will enable us to grow from them from within. Tom O’Neal saw opportunity in developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem by providing the analytical skills people needed to see where their talents could be optimally deployed. His goal was to focus on “scalable companies,” and we have come a long way since he launched his programs.
My role is to facilitate M.J. Soileau’s and Dr. Hitt’s vision to make the assets of the University seamless and accessible, to find the needs and wants of the client, then to match them with the resources of UCF. For instance, when EA was looking at expanding their studio, we were able to enhance the interface with our film and digital media folks, which eventually led to the master’s program.
I guess what I do is bring people together, matching the assets of the University with the needs and wants of business.