North Central: All Systems Are Go for Growth
Florida's Central/Space Coast region grows new business on solid roots in aviation and tourism.
Build it, they will come
In Marion County, Jorge Gutman's "Field of Dreams" is an urbanized downtown for Ocala that will blend retail shops with residential dwellings and commercial office space. Marion County, the southernmost county in the region, is known for its horse industry and the natural beauty of its springs and trails. Ocala's quaint downtown had been home to retailers for years, but when shopping in the area moved out to the mall on Highway 200, so did some downtown retailers. Gutman's Company, JJH Investments, plans to revive Ocala's downtown.
"There are companies out there looking for a place like Ocala," he says. "This community is made up of intelligent, hard-working, caring people. Many want to bring back the charm of our downtown areas and provide a way for people to live, work and shop in an urban, yet quaint setting. Ocala is a perfect place for that to happen."
Gutman received $1.5 million from the city of Ocala toward the development's $20 million first phase, which will include a 40,000-square-foot retail center and a parking garage with 250 spaces. The second phase will feature a conversion of the former Sprint building to a residential mix of 10 townhouses and 28 condominiums.
"This will be a great destination for companies to have corporate offices where employees live, walk to work, shop and dine," Gutman says.
Furthermore, the developer is willing to back up his sales pitch with support for the right company. He is currently working with local economic development officers to entice a world-renowned research facility to locate in Ocala.
"I consider it a great opportunity to do what I can to help the right company come to Ocala. I am committed to offsetting rent and working with them however I can to make the deal work," he says.
Gutman is hopeful that his mixed-use development will be the catalyst for attracting high-tech researchers. Proximity to the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of North Florida and University of Central Florida is an added incentive.
Partnering for the future
Having a well-trained workforce is critical to this region's growth, and with that in mind, Marion Technical Institute (MTI) in Ocala has launched a new approach to education and employment preparation.
Building on partnerships among the Marion County Public Schools, the CLM Workforce Connection and private businesses, the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) spearheaded the creation of a high school where education meets experience. Students are offered a strong academic curriculum in conjunction with academy courses in the areas of automotive, building construction, business and finance, culinary arts, industrial engineering technology and information technology. The results have been significant--a 22% increase in the graduation rate above the district average; a 66% placement of graduates in training-related jobs; an 88% certification rate (industry-specific); and a 42% increase in academy enrollment for the fall 2006 term. The business community loves it.
"MTI is a way for us to 'grow our own' employees," says Brian O'Connor, MTI Advisory Committee chair and manager of Lockheed-Martin Ocala Operations. "The opportunities are endless for these students. They are able to pave their way toward college if they choose, or immediately start their careers. As employers, we are able to work with the student interns and cultivate some of the most desirable traits early. MTI works with the students on employability skills and getting industry-specific certifications to give them the most marketable skills when entering the workplace. It's a win-win all the way around."
The success of MTI in cultivating a workforce has garnered attention statewide and nationally. In June 2006, at the CHOICE/Workforce Summit, MTI was recognized as the first official replication site of the CHOICE model, which originated in Okaloosa County. MTI was one of six sites awarded startup funding from Workforce Florida Inc. to replicate the CHOICE model. The school was also honored in mid-2006 by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as an effective "E-3 Partnership" that is committed to embracing and installing a demand-driven culture in the publicly funded workforce system. DOL defines a "demand-driven culture" as one which responds directly to business needs and prepares workers for good jobs in the fastest growing careers.