The University of Florida campus
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[Photo by Jeff Gage - UF Photography]
Some of the brightest colors in Gainesville's portrait are the median age of its residents, 23, making it the youngest city in Florida, and their educational levels — nearly a quarter of the population holds a graduate or professional degree. Both statistics are driven by the University of Florida, the economic engine for the city, Alachua County and the north-central Florida region. With a $2.5-billion budget and more than 13,000 employees, UF dwarfs any other government or private employer. Include affiliated Shands hospitals, and the budget grows to $4.2 billion and the employee count to nearly 26,000.
UF imprints on Gainesville the intellectual life, arts and culture of a larger metropolitan area — with relatively little traffic or other problems associated with a big city. An engaged citizenry has strengthened the public schools and fended off urban sprawl and polluting industries. Add athletics and the natural beauty of north-central Florida, which has the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world, and Gainesville's quality of life ranks with any city in Florida.
In recent years, it has taken the top-city title nationally, from Money magazine to Frommer's. Forbes and Portfolio.com have called Gainesville one of the smartest cities in America. The smarts trickle down to kids: Alachua County students consistently post the top scores among Florida's 67 counties on the SAT. Last year's average score was 1660, far above the state average of 1467 or national 1497.
For decades, town-gown relations were strained, and the business community clashed with slow-growth forces that often dominated local government. But in recent years, economic developers have come to tout Gainesville's smart growth and an economy that is greener than most of Florida's. For example, Gainesville was the first city in the nation to implement a solar feed-in tariff program, based on European models that let citizens invest in solar photovoltaic systems and sell the electricity they produce back to the utility. "We're secure in who we are now," says Santa Fe College President Jackson Sasser. "We're not going to be desperate about our growth."
Today, community and campus leaders share a vision for helping grow Gainesville around an innovation economy. Some of the area's most dynamic industry growth in recent years has come directly out of UF, with spinoffs such as RTI Biologics, now one of the top-20 employers in the county. UF's Innovation Square, a large-scale development under way between campus and Gainesville's vibrant downtown, physically connects the new intellectual vision between town and gown. UF President Bernie Machen describes the 10-year, 40-acre project as a "game-changer" for the community that will eventually bring in 3,000 creative-class jobs.
His words reflect real promise. Last fall, Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class," plotted out the growth of high-paying, high-skill jobs for knowledge, professional and creative workers across the United States. Gainesville posted the biggest gains in the nation, with a projected 17.7% increase in creative-class jobs.
The biggest question for Gainesville is whether the game-changing will extend to the city's majority African-American east side. Poverty remains a pressing problem there even as the rest of the city grows jobs and income. There is an enormous gap between Gainesville's prosperous areas and impoverished sections that also included four "D" schools in Florida's public-school grading system last year.
Small tech firms and creative entrepreneurs are not enough to erase the marks of poverty on Gainesville's picture. But if the community's new, grow-its-own strategy sprouts more RTIs, over time, the technology bridge between campus and downtown could also bridge the gap between east and west.