Updated 12 months ago
Home to the urban centers of Ocala and Gainesville as well as the University of Florida, the North Central region teems with innovative ideas and entrepreneurial activity. This area, which is known for its competitive cost of living, abundance of natural resources and advanced transportation network draws businesses of many types and sizes to take advantage of easy access to global markets and a highly skilled workforce.
Today, with its growing emphasis on collaboration between the public and private sectors, North Central offers unprecedented economic opportunity. Collaborations include a newly designated Enterprise Zone in Ocala; the coming together of 22 entities to provide region-wide broadband capabilities; and the launching of a "super incubator" linking university research and private business development in Gainesville.
Signature Brands CEO Jim Schneider found the right site and plenty of local support to expand his growing company in North Central Florida. [Photo: Signature Brands]
"In the zone" for progress
As president and CEO of Signature Brands, Jim Schneider is quite familiar with Marion County's business assets. The company that started nearly 60 years ago in an Ocala kitchen has since grown to become a manufacturer and distributor of products commonly found on household shelves all across America. Betty Crocker, Cake Mate, PAAS and Pumpkin Masters are among the well-known labels from Signature Brands that command 85% of its industry's market share. Schneider credits the Ocala-Marion community for much of the company's success.
"We have some very long-term, seasoned professionals running the Ocala operation with a team of loyal and dedicated associates," he says. "Some have been with us for decades."
In 2008, when Signature's parent company — Switzerland-based food manufacturer Hero — approved the acquisition of yet another brand, Schneider sought help from the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Council to find a site for expansion and tapped into a new level of collaboration between state and local governments. The state of Florida had designated its newest Enterprise Zone in the city of Ocala, providing a wealth of advantages for siting Signature's new facility in familiar territory.
Demographics for the North Central Region can be found at Business Florida's interactive map of Florida.
Signature Brands is not the only company to enjoy the advantages of locating in Ocala's newly designated Enterprise Zone. Pennsylvania-based Santelli Tempered Glass preceded Signature as the first business to locate "in the zone," bringing a capital investment of $3.5 million to the area. Owner Joseph Santelli credits state and local investments as a key motivator in his decision.
"The programs put together by the city, county and state made it obvious that Ocala is where we needed to be. We have been treated well and feel very welcomed in our new community," he says. "This location will help us better serve our customers in the Southeast so we can enjoy continued growth."
Making solid connections
The newly created North Florida Broadband Authority represents the effort of nearly two dozen government entities in four counties and eight cities to secure a $30-million grant aimed at providing middle-mile broadband capacity to the unserved and underserved areas of North Central Florida.
Robert Sheets, a private-sector consultant and CEO of Government Services Group who served as the point person in bringing together the governmental bodies, says that it was the region's strong, unified identity that caught the attention of Federal Stimulus Grant reviewers at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"None of these counties or cities had the resources alone to qualify — much less stand out among the competition — for these grant dollars," says Sheets. "There were 2,250 applications for the first round. These local governments voted to create the Authority in less than three weeks."
"This is more than a regional business/government effort," says Jeff Hendry, executive director of the North Florida Economic Development Partnership. "It truly is a comprehensive community effort that included support and commitment from political leaders and businesses, community colleges and universities, libraries, rural hospitals and numerous community groups. Nearly 70 letters of support were submitted representing every sector of the region."
This initiative does not compete with commercial providers. Rather, it allows the development and enhancement of existing access to high-speed connectivity and provides a substantial economic development boost to the entire region. Businesses as diverse as manufacturing, logistics and distribution, agriculture, technology, medical and healthcare research, development and public safety all require reliable broadband access. The North Florida Broadband Authority will provide all the partners with strengthened opportunities to connect to their futures.
Economic Stimulus Package funding for the program is intended to create infrastructure projects that serve communities and jumpstart economic opportunity. The communities served by this Authority include the counties of Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Jefferson, Levy, Madison, Putnam, Suwannee, Taylor, Union and Wakulla, plus Cedar Key, Cross City, Lake City, Live Oak, Monticello, Perry, White Springs and Worthington Springs.
University research meets private sector development
Slated for completion in fall 2011, UF’s Innovation Hub will anchor a proposed development in downtown Gainesville.? [Rendering: Ponikvar & Associates Inc.]
Funded through an $8.2-million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) and $5 million from the university, the 45,000-square-foot facility, slated for completion by fall 2011, will be the first of many buildings in a proposed research park called Innovation Square.
The facility on Southwest Second Avenue in Gainesville is unique because, in addition to providing offices, laboratory space and shared equipment areas for high-tech startup companies, it will house UF's Office of Technology Licensing and UF Tech Connect, the university's main commercialization offices.
"This facility maximizes the incubator concept by bringing together all the elements needed for commercialization to succeed," says Win Phillips, UF's vice president for research, noting that businesses located in incubators are four times more likely to succeed.
University officials envision the Innovation Hub as a place where entrepreneurs, scientists, investors and students will gather to share ideas that lead to new opportunities.
"This 'super incubator' is indicative of the collaborative spirit and forward-looking, regional approach to economic development that EDA is focused on advancing," says John Fernandez, assistant secretary for economic development in the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The project also will serve as the anchor for Innovation Square, the realization of ambitious plans to create a research park by developing the rest of the block over the next decade. Innovation Square is viewed as an important component of the city of Gainesville's plans for the Southwest Second Avenue corridor that connects the university with downtown.
"We intend Innovation Square as the last major piece [of the corridor], finally bridging UF and downtown Gainesville," explains UF President Bernie Machen. "We believe what will rise here is a neighborhood of homes, offices and retail outlets — a happy merger of downtown, the tech community and the university."
Fernandez adds that the project "will expand the entire region's knowledge-based economy and advance Gainesville's reputation as a national hub for green and health technologies."
A Goto Chronos projector — the first of just two in Florida — brings night sky images to life at Kika Silva Pla Planetarium, Santa Fe College. [Photo: PodarCo Photography]