Florida's Central/Space Coast region grows new business on solid roots in aviation and tourism.
Building on tourism
While developing its MS&T sector, the seven-county Central/Space Coast region has worked to further its preeminence as a tourist destination. In addition to its widely acclaimed beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, this region is home to a collection of world-renowned theme parks: Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom, Epcot, MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom; Universal Studios Florida and its sister park Islands of Adventure; Sea World and its sister park Discovery Cove; and smaller attractions such as Gatorland in Kissimmee and Florida's oldest theme park, Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, which reopened under new ownership in December 2004 following extensive renovations.
The tourist-town perception actually gives the area an advantage when it competes with other parts of the country for high-tech firms, says Charlie Sloan, executive vice president of business development for the Metro Orlando EDC. People who come to scout out the area think they're sneaking off for a vacation. Then they see the opportunities available.
"The first thing they say is, 'Wow, I had no idea this all existed here in Orlando,'" Sloan says. "They're usually just dumbfounded and surprised at the depth and breadth of the infrastructure. The best thing you can do is exceed expectations."
The space industry pumps $4.5 billion annually into Florida's economy and employs more than 23,000 workers in space-related businesses across the state.
But while tourism and conventions pump billions of dollars into this region's economic engine, the technology sector is coming on strong too, with the creation of Innovation Way. Spearheaded by Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty, this emerging new high-tech corridor is aimed at encouraging business expansion and job growth in vital economic sectors.
Along with Central Florida Research Park, International Corporate Park and Orlando International Airport, the University of Central Florida is a key component of the mayor's economic development strategy.
Efforts to make this region a biotech business hub are already showing results. In August 2006, the California-based Burnham Institute for Medical Research announced plans to build its Florida satellite lab on 50 acres of land in the Lake Nona area of Orlando. Over the next 10 years, an estimated 300 scientists and support staff will be hired at average annual salaries of about $80,000 to focus on obesity and diabetes research and new drug development at the Florida lab. While total economic impact is yet to be determined, local officials anticipate that the new 175,000-square-foot facility will serve as the anchor for what could become a regional center of medical research and treatment. The newly approved UCF medical school will be built on neighboring land, and a new Veterans Administration hospital in the same area is likely.
With 45,000 students, UCF has grown to become the seventh-largest university in the nation, and one of the area's top employers. Academic programs in engineering, computer science, optics and photonics as well as biomedical science, business administration and hospitality management are helping to provide a talented workforce equipped with highly specialized skills.
In 2005, UCF opened the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in downtown Orlando to cater to the growing video game industry and MS&T sector. The new UCF medical school, which is slated to open by 2009, is expected to generate approximately $1.4 billion per year in economic activity and more than 6,400 jobs.
Roots in aviation
JetBlue and other companies are attracted by Central/Space Coast Florida's rich history in aviation. Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County has been the nation's hub for human spaceflight since the 1950s. Also in Brevard, Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station remain active military installations.
Location was extremely important to Anthony Tiarks in his search for an additional U.S. location for Liberty Aerospace, a U.K.-based manufacturer of two-seater Liberty XL-2 planes. Since opening a plant at Melbourne International Airport in 2002 with just five people, Liberty's workforce has grown to 170, and there are plans to hire more. Liberty President Tiarks looked at about 29 locations along the eastern seaboard and U.S. Gulf Coast. He chose Melbourne for many reasons: Brevard County's legacy in spaceflight, which offered a ready-made workforce of engineers for his company, and the facilities at Melbourne International, where small planes can easily share access with jets. Melbourne's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean was a plus, too; Tiarks could woo potential customers by flying them over the beach. The cost of living was another factor, Tiarks says. The average salary for his employees is $40,000 to $50,000, which goes further in Brevard County than in some other areas. "Here, people can have a good lifestyle--and not a big commute," he says.
Lockheed Martin took finances into consideration, too, when it decided to consolidate its Fleet Ballistic Missile Test and Support Systems Engineering Group from multiple buildings in Cocoa Beach to a single site. The company looked first at moving its entire operation to Kings Bay, Ga., or Bangor, Wash. Ultimately, Lockheed Martin chose to remain in Florida after the Economic Development Commission of the Space Coast put together a report on moving costs and helped find a two-building campus on the grounds of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The company's Post-Production Center of Excellence moved into its new quarters in January 2006, says George Olson, site director.
Lockheed Martin plans to add about 30 employees here in the next two to three years.