FLORIDA Perception vs. Reality
Orlando and St. Petersburg embody the Florida challenge: Creating a new economic reality in the shadow of enduring stereotypes.
More Than the Mouse
Tourism will always shape central Florida's image, but a very real, very modern economy also has emerged.
Old: Disney's arrival forever stamped central Florida as a tourism haven ...
New: ... But simulation and tech businesses have gained critical mass.
[photographs: Florida Photographic Collection left; Naval Air Warfare Center right]
In March, Golf Channel commentators broke from chattering about Tiger Woods' and Ernie Els' performances in the Tavistock Cup at Orlando's Lake Nona Golf & Country Club to gush about a nearby complex of research labs, education facilities and hospitals that make up Orlando's new "Medical City."
Over piney treetops, viewers got a long look at the biotech hub, which includes Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and UCF's medical school. The spotlight on Medical City was a rare glimpse at a part of the region's economy that is usually defined in terms mouse ears, roller coasters and performing killer whales.
Orlando's non-tourism economy had been evolving toward critical mass for more than a decade when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the subsequent collapse of tourism — turbocharged the effort to diversify the region's economy.
A local economic development agency commissioned a study to examine the city's non-tourism assets and to develop a plan to promote them. The strength of the area's technology sector, with a backbone in both simulation and digital media, surprised even some local officials.
Today, Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission's marketing materials focus on the region's tech sector. Tourism takes a back seat. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer held his state of the city speech in February at UCF's College of Medicine at Medical City.
Word is getting out. Former President Bill Clinton cited Orlando's success in the simulation industry as something other cities should mimic. Clinton referred to Orlando as a "prosperity center" and home of the "computer simulation boom," boasting the city has 100 computer simulation companies during an interview last fall on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" news program. "They are doing great," Clinton says.
For their part, local economic developers say they're happy with the visibility that tourism provides for the area — but they now feel confident they've got a lot more to sell. "All we are doing now is building on that great brand identity and really creating a brand platform that Orlando is also a great place to do business," says Gary Sain, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.