Updated 5 yearss ago
Mention Orlando, and lots of Floridians see a tourist- and traffic-clogged gridlock they'd do anything to avoid. But that picture gives Kirstie Chadwick a belly laugh. CEO of Internet startup DigitalOwl.com, Chadwick, a long-time Orlando resident, has for the past several years headed up East Coast sales and service for Silicon Valley-based high-tech companies. When it came time to realize her own e-dream, Chadwick considered California's two-hour commutes and 12-hour days and opted for Orlando. "I have to laugh when people complain about the traffic here," she says. On top of launching DigitalOwl, she's her daughter's Girl Scout troop leader and her son's basketball coach: "That wouldn't be possible in the valley."
Still, everything is relative. And Orlando continues to be one of the most congested cities in the state. Mayor Glenda Hood's goal last year to reach a compromise on the contentious light-rail issue failed when the city council killed the project. Other goals also have gone unrealized. Efforts to draw more people downtown at night have fallen short; millions have been spent to revitalize the city's historic, African-American Parramore neighborhood with little result; and many of the city's schools are suffering -- 14 of the city's public elementary schools, three of its middle schools and one high school received grades of D or F on the state's school-grading program last year.
Those issues and others have given Orlando a bad rap, one that is probably worse than it deserves, Chadwick says. And that can make it hard to start a high-tech business there. According to Chadwick, her location meant she had to work twice as hard to attract venture capital. But she has finally pulled in $1.5 million from Washington, D.C.-based Draper Atlantic, possibly breaking the ice for other Orlando startups.
Several other Internet companies, such as ScorecardUSA.com, have been popping up around the city in the past few months.
Meanwhile, 14 startups already have moved into the University of Central Florida's new high-tech business incubator in the heart of the city. The university's highly regarded computer-science and engineering departments continue to help fuel the region's high-tech growth.
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Ellen Stallins, a longtime economic development official in Orlando, heads the Scottish Technology and Research Center that anchors UCF's new high-tech incubator. Scotland's trade office has pumped $500,000 into the Florida center to boost commerce between the U.S. and Scotland and help Scottish companies trying to expand here. No word on whether Stallins has had to eat haggis.
City Council member Bruce Gordy, a longtime College Park dentist, has made a bit of history in Orlando -- whether or not he beat eight-year-veteran Mayor Glenda Hood in the city's most interesting mayoral election in two decades. (Florida Trend went to press before the March 14th election.) Gordy raised far more in campaign contributions than Hood, who has fallen out of favor with some constituents for her dogged stance on light-rail -- a stance others applaud.
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Theseus Logic holds 20 patents on a new semiconductor chip design methodology. The clockless technology could enable a whole new class of chips that are cheaper and faster than what's currently available. The company last year relocated from Minnesota to Orlando, hired industry veteran Mike Graff as CEO, pulled in more than $10 million in equity investment and announced an alliance with Motorola. Its first product is expected to hit the market by the end of the year.
Triton Network Systems manufactures broadband fixed-wireless products, providing telephony, data and Internet services to 20- to 40-Ghz frequency license-holders such as AT&T. The company has pulled in nearly $100 million in venture capital funding since it was established three years ago, and last fall Ericsson executive Skip Speaks was named CEO of the company.
Finding an affordable place to live in Orange County, where so many residents make their living in low-paying service jobs, is becoming next to impossible, according to a new report from the county's Affordable Housing Task Force. The median one-bedroom apartment in Orange County costs $569 a month, which is generally more than someone employed by the amusement, retail and hotel industries can afford. The county's median house price is $106,487.
Lake Mary/Heathrow: Just Do It
When business leaders in Lake Mary-Heathrow learned in 1997 that an Interstate 4 interchange crucial to the town's development was a decade away in the Department of Transportation's plans, they hopped in their cars and vans and drove to Tallahassee to lobby. Today, gleaming office parks are growing around the County Road 46-A interchange just as local leaders had envisioned. "Every time I drive across it, I remember that a community can get these things done," says Diane Parker, long-time head of the Lake Mary-Heathrow Chamber of Commerce and now chief of the newly merged city and county chamber.
There's no question Lake Mary is a community that knows how to get things done. Ten years ago, the city decided it wanted to be a high-tech, high-end hub. Municipal leaders insisted on aesthetic details such as large set-backs, small signs and buried power lines. They turned down retail store after retail store, holding out for the types of campus-style development parks that today help make the town not only pleasant to look at but rich.
The median income is $58,000, compared to $22,000 in the surrounding region. It helps that the Seminole County public school system is among the best in Florida. Still, the schools don't provide nearly enough of a workforce for companies such as Convergys, which plans to hire 100 people a month for the next three months. The business community, schools and chambers work together on creative education initiatives. (See Seminole County outlook, page 140.)
After workforce issues, transportation is the biggest concern. With a majority of its workforce driving in every day from Volusia County, one of the worst commutes in the state because of traffic jams caused by the narrow bridge over the St. Johns River, local leaders plan to lobby hard this session for replacing the bridge. If history is any indication, they'll be successful.
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Diane Parker, who launched the Greater Lake Mary-Heathrow Chamber of Commerce eight years ago, now heads up the newly merged Lake Mary and Seminole chambers, now called Seminole County/Lake Mary Regional Chamber of Commerce. Each chamber had about 1,500 members. Parker, an energetic executive who doesn't sugarcoat her discussions, has pushed workforce development, education and smart growth for years.
Tom Green, senior vice president, Birmingham, Ala.-based Colonial Properties, recently moved back to Central Florida to develop a 175-acre community at the northwest quadrant of the I-4/46-A interchange. Colonial TownPark, which Green calls a "live, work and shop community," will include 1-million square feet of Class A office space, 450 apartments, 200,000 square feet of retail and at least one hotel.
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Convergys does billing and customer service for some of the fastest-growing industry sectors in the world -- wireless, cable and the Internet. As those administrative/backoffice tasks become increasingly complicated and time-consuming, businesses outsource more and more with firms like Convergys. The company just spent $110 million to open a data center in Lake Mary and is filling it with 2,200 employees. Convergys has 41,000 employees worldwide, a quarter of them in Florida, and revenues of $1.8 billion.
Dynamic Healthcare Technologies develops and markets clinical software to healthcare providers such as hospitals. Its services are expected to be in increasing demand as the healthcare sector further relies on technology to save time and money. The 6-year-old company, which moved to Lake Mary's technology corridor from Maitland nearly two years ago, has grown to 225 employees and reports fiscal 1999 revenues of $35 million.
Lake Mary is home to 10,000 residents, but more than 40,000 come to work there each day. The problem isn't so much affordability -- the city's jobs on average pay well -- as the availability of housing. Hundreds of apartments under construction should help ease the problem.
Celebration: Beyond the Hoopla
Since moving to this small-town-from-scratch in summer 1996, the first residents of Celebration have now endured four years of media scrutiny, a troubled start for their K-12 public school and the curious stares of tourists tooling down the streets of Celebration to see what's up in Disney's model town. But the residents also have been blessed with great neighbors, one of the most progressive hospitals in the region and a walking-distance downtown that's reached critical mass -- with a movie theater, professional offices, and some fine and casual dining.
While perhaps the sheer ordinariness of this community has disillusioned some who expected Celebration to deliver more of its original utopian vision, the community nonetheless appears well on its way to success. Now home to 2,700, Celebration expects 15,000 by build-out. The community's first hotel opened last fall. Its first church and a large daycare center are under construction.
While residential and storefront development have dominated until now, Celebration's skyline this year will get a few commercial office structures. Duke-weeks Realty Corp. is building an 80,000-sq.-ft., Class A office building at Celebration's business park, which fronts I-4. Duke-weeks' John Coleman, who oversees Tampa and Orlando projects, predicts Celebration soon will emerge as one of Central Florida's hottest new business markets. "The gap between Orlando and Tampa is becoming much shorter," he says. "Celebration is the perfect location to serve both markets."
Nestled in a pleasant, 10,000-acre tract at the otherwise garish crossroads of U.S. 192 and I-4 in northwest Osceola County, Celebration is 20 minutes from the Orlando International Airport and 30 minutes from downtown. General Manager Perry Reader uses location as a selling point to businesses, along with the community's quality of life and high-tech amenities -- such as the broadband underground fibers that connect each home and office directly to the Internet.
High-tech and good living were two qualities that lured Robert Wight and his family here from the state of Washington, where he was a Microsoft executive. "I wanted to be in a small town, where you know your neighbors, and where it's sunny," Wight says. "Seattle is the inverse on every one of those."
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Kathy Johnson is executive director of Celebration Foundation, which puts local philanthropy to work for local causes, creating an infrastructure for giving in anticipation of future needs. It often takes a crisis to motivate a community to form such a foundation. But the Disney Co. brought in Johnson, who also ran a foundation in Minnesota, to begin building an endowment for the future, as well as to create a volunteer network. Johnson, a foster mother who lives in the community, placed 400 Celebration volunteers last year.
Susan Brasfield in March became director of Celebration School, a K-12 Osceola County public school under intense pressure from not only insiders such as parents, but outsiders including the media, which has shined a spotlight on the school and its rough start. While plenty of families report satisfaction with the school, others have pulled their kids out over teaching methods and other issues. Brasfield comes to Celebration from Marietta, Ga., where she was an elementary school principal and host of a community education television program. Her goals: to prioritize the problems that need fixing and bring the community together to work on them.
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CEO Robert Wight calls his new company, youknowbest.com, "a Silicon Valley-based startup that happens to be in Central Florida." The e-commerce company launched last July snagged a commitment for $20 million in venture capital in November and should be up and running by next month. Its technology allows customers to find the best deals on any product -- from electronics to real estate -- while remaining anonymous. The company aims to undercut other sites' sales commissions, passing the savings on to users, and to keep customers' identities secret unless they're ready to buy.
DeLand-based Stetson University is managing Celebration's Intranet community network, bringing an MBA program to town and discussing construction of an educational and cultural center there. The university has long been a partner with Celebration School, providing teacher training and other support. It also offers a number of programs in the community.
Town leaders say they want a mixed-income community made up of everyone from international executives to workers from the area tourism industry. Housing prices are indeed diverse, ranging from $150,000 bungalows to multimillion-dollar estates. Still, the community is far too pricey for a hotel clerk. The cheapest apartment runs about $700 a month.
With its relatively pristine environment of 1,400 lakes and untouchable areas such as the Green Swamp and Wekiva River Basin, Lake continues to offer some of the most aesthetic living and playing space in Central Florida. But on the down side, the county is dominated by the retirement industry and its service and retail jobs that keep wages the lowest in the region.
Lake, population 208,504, is striving to build a base of residential communities and ecotourism while it snags new industries. Two new hospitals and the luring of the USA Triathlon National Training Center from Colorado Springs last year should help.
Ideally, says economic development director Bruce Redus, Lake wants to pull off growth without compromising the county's signature lakes and rolling hills. Lake is directing new industry to the Christopher C. Ford industrial park in Groveland, which has attracted big distribution centers such as Circuit City, Goodyear, Sprint, Marriott and Domino's.
At the same time, the county is focusing on rails-to-trails and other initiatives that will protect open spaces. "We want to be a model county for maintaining that balance," Redus says.
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Electric Specialties Inc. creates custom control systems for the water and wastewater industry throughout North America. The company does everything from designing the systems to manufacturing the enclosures. Electric Specialties expanded operations last year and relocated from Orange County to Tavares.
Orange continues to be the fastest-growing county in Central Florida, in not only population but also new businesses and new jobs. In the past year, 7,864 start-ups were reported in Orange County, which also is projected to gain more jobs than any other county in Florida through at least the next decade.
Much of the growth is in the high-tech sector, and economic development efforts target simulation and training, microelectronics manufacturing, software development, lasers and electro-optics.
Still, the $17.6-billion tourism industry tops anything else. That's why the lack of affordable housing for that industry's workers has become one of the county's most pressing quality-of-life issues and one of its highest priorities this year.
Tourism also contributes to what most residents agree is the county's most serious problem: transportation. Orange County Commission Chairman Mel Martinez reported to the state Department of Transportation recently that one out of every four highway segments in the county is overly congested or below the acceptable level of service. His solution: 10 lanes for I-4. "I am committed to aggressive road-building," he says. But he and others also realize the critical need for alternatives to I-4.
One possibility: Orange County's light-rail initiative has died, but U.S. Rep. John Mica is gathering support for a commuter train that would run from Volusia to Osceola counties, through the middle of Orange County and Orlando.
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TeraNex is a Lockheed Martin spin-off that develops hardware and software systems for real-time video processing applications. The 40-employee company has developed digital TV format converters; its most recent work is in the areas of broadband, Internet video streaming and digital cinema.
The county once known for cattle raising continues to urbanize rapidly because of tourism, which accounts for more than half of all economic activity in Osceola. County officials certainly don't want to look the gift mouse in the mouth, but they've also come to realize that the reliance on tourism has kept down wages and kept out the types of companies that might pay more and put less stress on the area.
A year ago, county government officials, Kissimmee and St. Cloud leaders, and Osceola County school representatives developed a list of strategies for improving the quality of life and increasing wages. Each governmental entity now is working on the strategies in its own way.
At the county level, every developer and every business owner that comes before the commission meets some hard questions: Will your jobs pay 120% higher than our average earnings? How will your project increase the revenue of existing businesses in our community? "If the new business doesn't meet those criteria, it certainly isn't going to get any incentive," says County Commissioner Ken Shipley. "It was time that we came together and figured out how to better manage growth and how to provide better quality of life."
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LB International designs, manufactures and installs high-density storage systems that help businesses streamline distribution. Clients range from car makers to food companies. Once spread out with offices in Orlando and manufacturing in Polk County, LB has consolidated operations in St. Cloud. The 50-person company plans to increase its workforce by at least 10% this year.
Seminole County continues to be one of the hottest business-relocation spots in the state, largely because of quality-of-life perks such as short commutes and a top public school system. The $3-million in tax incentives offered by the county to lure high-paying jobs probably hasn't hurt, either. The county has brought in 9,000 jobs in the past four years and added 36,000 residents in the past five.
The danger, of course, is that new businesses will pack Seminole's schools, roads and spaces so tightly that the county will begin to resemble neighboring Orange, from which several of these firms fled. For example, the school district projects a need for six more elementary schools in the next decade to keep pace with growth, but likely will build only three.
Realizing that county schools are the most precious gem in Seminole's economic development crown, business, political and civic leaders continue to make education a top priority. Through the newly merged chamber, businesses across the county are closely involved in education: One program offers teachers paid summer internships at local companies; another offers teachers high-tech courses at local businesses, where they go to learn skills such as website development; another puts local businesspeople into high school English classes for five weeks to talk to kids about real-world job skills.
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Southeastern Radiation Products has developed a new method for cancer radiation known as a tissue compensator. The 3-D-type product gives doctors better control over the radiation beam. Southeastern manufactures the product and sells it to doctors over the Internet. The company, based in Sanford, today has six employees working in 5,000 square feet of office space; by next year, the company hopes to grow to 25 employees and move into a new facility five times larger than its current site.