by Ken Ibold
Updated 11 months ago
New-economy companies such as Triton, which recently laid off 10% of its workforce, are adjusting to hard times here as elsewhere across the country, but economic developers say the high-tech slowdown won't curtail their push this year to reshape Orlando's business image.
A multipronged marketing effort aimed at reaching companies, site selectors and potential employees is spreading the word that Orlando's business climate doesn't revolve around a big pair of ears. Under the brand HighTechOrlando, the marketing initiative aims to raise Orlando's profile on the high-tech map.
"We're trying to change the perception of the community among captains of industry, but we're also trying to let the workers of the world know there are lots of alternatives here," says John F. Krug, vice president of Technology Industry Development at the Economic Development Commission of Mid-Florida.
The effort is largely pinned to a study completed last year by Angelou Economic Advisors and the University of Texas. In its report, called Metro Orlando Technology Strategy, the consulting firm determined Orlando's strongest technology clusters were in defense, semiconductors, software/multimedia/simulation and telecommunications. Those industries comprise nearly 4,800 companies and 70,000 workers.
The study also concluded that most of the ingredients are in place to make Orlando a technology base on par with Austin, Texas, or Raleigh/Durham, N.C. The challenges include attracting world-class talent, getting venture capital and rebranding Orlando as a serious place to live and work.
Krug says the bulk of the solution lies in properly marketing the area. For example, he says, the University of Central Florida -- like Orlando in general -- doesn't have the national reputation it deserves for its technology base. To attract tech companies, the EDC has committed $17.5 million to market Orlando. The goal is to generate 18,000 new jobs in the next four years, boosting local payrolls by more than $1.3 billion. "This is one of those cases," Krug says, "when throwing money at something clearly will make a difference."
People to Watch
Former Orange County Property Appraiser Richard Crotty, who was appointed to replace popular Mel Martinez as Orange County chairman, hopes to re-establish his momentum after a bumpy start. One of Crotty's first actions brought some unwanted controversy when he proposed a ban on new entertainment venues that feature dancing. Crotty hoped the ban would help the war on drugs in Orlando, which is a major center for importing heroin from Puerto Rico ["High Times," May 1999, www.FloridaTrend.com].
As managing partner of Gray, Harris & Robinson, Biff Marshall has led the firm through a string of acquisitions aimed at turning the home-grown, 92-year-old practice into one of the state's major players. Marshall founded the Central Florida Innovation Corp. and has a seat on the board of the Economic Development Commission of Mid-Florida.
Businesses to Watch
Correct Craft's decision to build a 300,000-sq.-ft. headquarters off the BeeLine Expressway east of Orlando signifies growth -- both by the 76-year-old, family-owned company and by Orlando itself. The company's new digs will include two lakes for testing boats and hosting competitions. The move will also help kick off International Corporate Park as a key player in Orlando's industrial repertoire -- now that growth has caught up to the park's once-fringe location.
Born in the e-commerce frenzy of the late 1990s, Connextions.net was quick to act when the dot-com bubble began to pop. The company focused its efforts on web fulfillment -- hosting web catalogs for other companies and then stocking, packing and shipping the merchandise. Clients include Mercedes-Benz, Cisco Systems and Chase Manhattan. In just six months, Connextions cut Mercedes-Benz's backlog by 67%.
Defense, hotels/entertainment and semiconductors are the three primary industries likely to be key to Orlando's growth, according to an industry cluster analysis by Angelou Economic Advisors. Where numbers greater than 2 indicate strong industry clusters, Orange County scored 5.78 in defense/aerospace; 5.63 in hotels/entertainment; and 2.20 in semiconductors.
Kissimmee: Aiming for Upscale
Being at the gateway to Walt Disney World has been a mixed blessing for Kissimmee. Having the best shot at the tourists streaming through the Magic Kingdom and its peers has fostered a thriving retail and tourism corridor. At the same time, that opportunity has led to the development of a one-dimensional economy.
Much of Kissimmee is populated by theme park workers living in apartments and low-end housing. On occasions when companies looking for industrial or corporate sites come knocking, they see a lot of inexpensive housing, but very little appropriate for the executives who will be running the show. "We love the tourist thing; that's our bread and butter," says Craig Holland, the city's planning manager. "But to make the economy more stable, we have to diversify."
To that end, Kissimmee is embarking on efforts to create a neo-traditional residential feel in at least some neighborhoods and is hiring a neighborhood planner to direct that development. Although it will take years, city leaders hope the effort will rejuvenate some of the older neighborhoods and develop new, upscale sections that will add to the community's diversity.
Plans call for houses close to the street, garages in the back accessed by alleys, pedestrian-friendly layouts and a mix of homes, offices and shopping that encourages people to leave the car at home. Those plans will be augmented by a downtown redevelopment. Key in that scheme is Winter Construction's plan to replace the 85-year-old Brahman Hotel downtown with a 10-story hotel and renovate the historic theater next door.
People to Watch
Maria Grulich, director of the Osceola County economic development department, spotted a state grant program aimed at developing training programs for emerging industries. Her efforts led to an $800,000 grant to the Technical Education Center of Osceola County in Kissimmee for a program in wireless communications technology -- the first of its kind in the state.
Kissimmee's downtown redevelopment and historic preservation are considered the keys to its home-town atmosphere in the face of what may become unprecedented growth. Leading the charge is Tom Lanier, owner of Lanier's Historic Downtown Market Place, The Gallery and Someday Shoppe. Lanier volunteers for many community organizations and gets much of the credit for igniting downtown's growing gentrification.
Businesses to Watch
Congestion on I-4 in Orlando has created new opportunities for businesses at Kissimmee Municipal Airport, just eight miles from Disney and 10 from the Orange County Convention Center. Driving the development is Ranger Aviation, which is planning a $10-million expansion, including a new facility that will make the airport more attractive to jets operated by companies doing business in south and west Orlando, as well as for celebrities and other well-heeled visitors to the theme parks. Ranger already sells fuel and provides maintenance and other services for private aircraft.
Don't tell Ramiro Reinoso there's an e-commerce slump. Reinoso, CEO of Marlin eSourcing Solutions, is spearheading the development of a new venture designed to offer turnkey internet operations to companies. When its state-of-the-art facility opens this month, Marlin will combine internet access, web hosting, customer service and fulfillment into an integrated package. The company plans to have 500 employees by the end of the year, eventually ramping up to 2,000.
According to an industry analysis by consulting firm Angelou Economic Advisors, Kissimmee and the rest of Osceola County can continue to count on tourism for growth. Where numbers greater than 2 indicate strong industry clusters, Osceola scored 5.57 in hotels/entertainment and 2.55 in restaurants/bars.
An expansion program at Orlando Sanford International Airport has helped Sanford become Florida's third-busiest international port of entry and helped induce Pan American Airways to expand domestic service there.
The county's economic success has carried with it a shift from small-town Central Florida to big-city Florida. Income is up, but so are housing prices. Traffic is up, but so is opportunity.
Growth in Seminole County is being met with open arms, in contrast to the attitude in other metro Orlando circles that growth has gotten out of hand and should be controlled until government can catch up. Business parks in Heathrow and Lake Mary seem to fill as fast as they're built, leading the I-4 corridor between Orlando and the St. Johns River to take on the appearance of a glittering Oz.
Though some bemoan the loss of Seminole's suburban character, others point to the schools, corporate headquarters and staggering 5.8% annual job growth rate as signs they're doing something right.
Business to Watch
One of Wall Street's darlings last year, Sawtek (Nasdaq-SAWS) has discovered that getting on top is easy compared to staying there. The company's stock has made the Nasdaq's bouncy two-year trip look like a limousine ride. Its primary challenge: One of its key markets may dry up because of advances in chip designs by cell-phone manufacturers. Shares have bounced from a 52-week high of $88 to a recent low of less than $17.
Although it's home to the Disney corporate monolith identified with Central Florida the world over, Osceola County has always suffered from business envy. Orange County, it seemed, got the attention and the tax base, while Osceola got the theme park traffic.
The county built Osceola Parkway with the intention of spurring development, but growth has been slow in coming. One high-profile plan to catapult northern Osceola into the big time has so far borne little fruit, but that may change.
Palm Beach developer Rob Miller's ambitious plan for a $1-billion World Expo Park on 1,000 acres has been stalled in court for nearly three years over the use of bonds to help with financing and commissions allegedly owed when Miller bought the original tract for $40 million. In the interim, however, he has changed the original plan drastically.
"It used to be exhibition space with some hotels and other things attached, now it's a 1,500-acre business park that happens to have an exhibition component to it," says Miller, who claims to have more than $70 million personally tied up in the deal. He now expects construction to begin after the middle of this year, pending the outcome of a public hearing scheduled for early April. The first building in the project is to be a 1,200-room hotel, expandable to 2,000 rooms, which should open in 2004.
Business to Watch
Tupperware (NYSE-TUP) has been trying to reinvent itself for several years, moving slowly into shopping mall kiosks and launching an online catalog. Though sales have been slow to grow, investors have taken notice, with the company's stock performing better than three-quarters of its competitors'.
Caught at the crossroads between agriculture and the suburbs, Lake County's economy is on a mission of exploration. The agriculture that sustained the community for generations is gradually giving way to more development, but the first manifestation -- distribution facilities -- isn't enough of a foundation on which to build an entire economy.
Distribution has established a niche in recent years, with Circuit City now adding nearly 192,000 square feet to the 514,000-sq.-ft. warehouse it opened two years ago. Marriott, Domino's and Goodyear also operate distribution centers at the Ford Industrial Park.
Enter value-added food products. A natural offspring of growing crops is processing them, and Lake County has embarked on new efforts to capitalize on its agricultural roots while generating more jobs and income for its workers. One company at the forefront of innovation is U.S. Nutraceuticals in Leesburg, which makes botanical extracts for use in products including dietary supplements and drinks. Its main focus is on saw palmetto extract, kava, ginger and natural antioxidants.
The company is breaking ground on a 20,000-sq.-ft. pilot plant project in Eustis, developing what it calls the SuPure process -- a method of extracting useful organic chemicals using carbon dioxide instead of organic solvents. The $7 million that the firm spent equipping the plant will enable the company to get a higher yield or higher-quality extracts from the raw materials. In a community where citrus production, for example, has dropped from 140,000 acres to 20,000 acres since the early 1980s, the shift toward value-added production can't come fast enough.
Business to Watch
Don Buckner's American Manufacturing and Machine was ranked No. 13 on Inc. magazine's list of fastest-growing U.S. companies. The Okahumpka company is on pace to generate $40 million
in sales, enough to make Buckner Ernst & Young's 2000 Florida Entrepreneur of the Year. The company's Vac-Tron Equipment industrial water sprayer/vacuums can be used to blast away dirt and rocks in a trench, exposing buried utility lines without the danger of cutting them.
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