North Central: All Systems Are Go for Growth
Florida's Central/Space Coast region grows new business on solid roots in aviation and tourism.
Meanwhile, in Alachua County, the Builders Association of North Central Florida (BANCF) is partnering with Alachua County's school system, Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) and the National Center for Construction Education and Research to create a dual-enrollment construction academy.
Jim Painter, president of BANCF, has long recognized the need for just such a partnership. "We've tried things before to get our younger students prepared for career paths and trades. It seemed the stars were all aligned to make it happen this time. This has been a wonderful partnership with tremendous opportunities for students and great potential for employers."
The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce/Council for Economic Outreach (CEO) has also pulled partners together to support a strategic initiative toward expansion, workforce development and attraction of new businesses. The program, called Opportunity 2010, is the sequel to the successful Competitive Edge, a similar investor-supported CEO program which brought 3,530 new jobs, 46 new businesses, and $175 million in new capital investment to the area from 2001 to 2005. Opportunity 2010 has more than $3 million pledged over five years from private and public sectors to continue this effort.
In addition, Sallie Mae, the nation's leading provider of education funding, has announced that it will open a new location in Gainesville. The facility will house 100 loan-servicing employees and bring the company's total employment in the Sunshine State to more than 1,300.
"We are delighted to increase our investment in Florida," says Renee Mang, senior vice president, Sallie Mae. "Sallie Mae has already experienced tremendous success at our current facility in Panama City, and we are confident the region's talented workforce will make Gainesville another great Sallie Mae Florida home."
Preparing for growth
Rural counties in the region are preparing for future economic activity, too. The governor's "Roadmap for Florida's Future: 2004-2009 Strategic Plan for Economic Development" calls for the implementation of an economic stimulus strategy for three Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC). Fourteen counties comprise the North Central Florida RACEC: Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Putnam, Suwannee, Taylor and Union.
The RACEC Economic Development Catalyst Project is designed to gather economic intelligence in order to target industries of the future and go to market with a regional catalytic site. Project success will mean high-value jobs, capital investment and an economic ripple effect throughout the region. Jim Poole, executive director of the Lake City-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, is excited about the prospects for growth. "This coordinated effort should help us level the playing field to compete with some of the larger communities for companies bringing jobs. A workforce of 10,000 seems low, but when we combine efforts and you see the possibility of drawing from an area of 400,000 workers, the possibilities are more promising."
In preparation, Madison County has completed an expansion of water and sewer lines from the municipalities to the I-10 interchanges, and Suwannee County is working on infrastructure improvements between the U.S. 129 corridor and I-75. The recent addition of a new Lowe's and expansion of the Goldkist plant have sparked additional growth in the area.
Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties are looking to capitalize on the area's natural beauty and grow ecotourism with a recent grant aimed at promoting "Florida's Pure Water Wilderness," a 2,000-square-mile, three-county cluster of pristine lakes, ponds, creeks, springs, rivers and Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The tri-county tourism board has leveraged support from state partners including Visit Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to enhance its tourism effort.
-- Ginger Broslat