Transportation: Riders' response to the SunRail commuter train following its debut in 2014 inspired supporters to push for expanded hours for leisure riders. Designed for commuters who want to avoid I-4, the train demonstrated broader appeal — two of its busiest stops are Church Street Station in downtown Orlando's entertainment district and Winter Park's upscale dining and shopping area. Ridership gets another boost from the start of major I-4 widening this year, a $2.3-billion, six-year project that will create bottlenecks and likely prompt more commuters to try the train. Also, new expressway overpasses in east Orlando have just opened, providing easier access to Lake Nona and Medical City. On the west side, work continues on the Wekiva Parkway, the fi nal link of a metro Orlando beltway.
Tourism: Walt Disney World and Universal Florida set attendance records in 2014 and are adding rides, hotels and condos to keep up with demand that shows no sign of slowing in 2015. About 2,500 new hotel rooms opened in 2014, including the 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association predicts another 2,500 rooms will open this year. Along International Drive, a host of new thrill rides, attractions, restaurants and hotels are under construction or about to open, anchored by a $250-million redevelopment of the former Mercado shopping and dining site. The I-Drive projects alone total more than $1 billion.
UCF: Downtown development will get an additional boost now that the Florida Board of Governors has approved $5.8 million for the University of Central Florida to begin construction of a $200-million downtown campus.
Entertainment: Fireworks heralded the grand opening of the $514-million Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando in late 2014, walking dis-tance from the revitalized Church Street Station entertainment district and Amway Arena. The city also celebrated the $207-million renovation of the Citrus Bowl, where the Orlando City Lions pro soccer team is playing in its inaugural Major League Soccer season while a new stadium, designed for soccer, is being built downtown. The pro soccer team has filled its lineup with international stars and signed more than 12,000 season ticket holders. Altogether, the downtown projects total about $1 billion.
Person to Watch
Thomas K. Sittema: The CEO of CNL Financial Group has spent most of his career behind the scenes as an investment banker, structuring multimillion-dollar deals for big businesses. This year he has a public profile chairing the Orlando Economic Development Commission, a public-private partnership working to attract companies and support businesses for Orange, Lake, Seminole and Osceola counties.
Sittema's office in a CNL tower in downtown Orlando gives him a lofty view of the growing city center, a skyline shaped significantly by the private investment management firm. Since its founding in Orlando by financier James Seneff in 1973, CNL and affiliates have formed or acquired entities with more than $29 billion in assets.
Seneff hired Sittema in 2009 at the peak of his career with Bank of America. Sittema helped launch the financial giant's real estate investment banking division in 1994 and oversaw more than $60 billion in mergers and acquisitions, debt deals and equity offerings. Before that he headed the Dallas real estate office of Bank of America and its predecessors.
Raised in the Midwest, Sittema earned a finance degree from a small Christian college in Sioux City, Iowa, and an MBA from Indiana University. Married to his college sweetheart and with three grown children, Sittema says "faith and family" have always come before work. He was named a Father of the Year by the American Diabetes Association in 2013.
Businesses to Watch
SeaWorld Entertainment: The Orlando-based company faces a crucial year after taking financial hits from several directions in 2014, laying off more than 300 employees and moving longtime CEO Jim atchison from the executive office to the boardroom. Chairman David D'Alessandro serves as interim CEO during a replacement search. Competition from Disney and Universal and clashes with aquatic animal rights groups hurt the company's bottom line.
Westgate Resorts: The Orlando- based timeshare giant has been a top employer for years, with more than 7,000 on its local payroll. Billionaire owner David Siegel of Windermere has been on a buying spree, acquiring the struggling Orlando Predators pro arena football team and partnering to buy and renovate the iconic Cocoa Beach pier with restaurants and shops. The company is building an $11-million Westgate Lakes Retail Village in south Orange County, with restaurants, bars, retail and banquet facilities. The development is set to open this year.
U. S. Ambulance: The Winter Park company is adding 126 jobs to its 473-person payroll and investing $2 million in local operations, cementing its position as the largest single-site manufacturer of ambulances and rescue vehicles in the nation.
Skyline Attractions: The Orlando startup company plans to design and build thrill rides for smaller tourist attractions, such as nearby Fun Spot. It is working out of a 28,000-sq.-ft. facility in south Orlando, grabbing some of the manufacturing side of the theme park business from firms in other states for the first time.
Viewpost: The Maitland firm, which provides cloud-based invoicing and payments, plans to hire more than 250 over the next three years. Orlando Technology Association President Orrett Davis calls Viewpost a classic example of the area's thriving cluster of small and medium-sized high-tech companies. Viewpost is led by well-known local business veterans Max Eliscu, CEO, and Rick Walsh, chairman.
Solodev: The website and mobile application software development company is expanding, adding 25 positions paying well above average for the region, contributing to further diversification of the economy. Led by CEO Ray Gilley, former head of the Orlando EDC, and Chief Technology Officer Shawn Moore, Solodev plans to invest $315,000 to expand its Orlando headquarters.
Lake Mary/Sanford/ Seminole County
Infrastructure: Seminole residents voted to raise the local sales tax to 7 cents. Revenue from the extra penny is pouring in at the rate of more than $47 million a year this fiscal year. It's projected to grow to more than $60 million a year beginning next year. County schools get a share, but most of the money will go for badly needed road repairs, stormwater drainage improvements and other infrastructure work. Topping the list this year is a $6-million road-widening project for a county portion of SR 426.
Sanford RiverWalk: Snaking along the scenic St. Johns River, one of the region's finest pedestrian and bicycle paths has been extended to 1. 76 miles at a cost of $6.4 million. Planning is now under way for a third and final section of the trail that will take it all the way to I-4, where it will connect to the Seminole County and Volusia County trail systems. Construction should begin in 2017, eventually linking Sanford to the planned Coast-to-Coast Trail, giving Seminole another asset to promote its mottos: Florida's Natural Choice and Orlando's Natural Oasis. Highlighting environmental gems and eco-tourism could attract more visitors.
Environmental Concerns: Bears and people have lived as neighbors in north Seminole County for centuries, but the years of relative peaceful co-existence have dissolved into a struggle for space as the final, priciest pieces of developable land in the county are cleared for homes amid a renewed building boom. The largest bear in state history, a 740-pound male, was trapped in January in Long-wood and euthanized rather than relocated because it had lost its fear of humans. The Fish and Wildlife Commission is planning to approve limited bear hunts this fall.
Person to Watch
E. Ann McGee: The president of Seminole State College of Florida is leading the school during its 50th anniversary celebration this year and overseeing ongoing expansion of the thriving community college, which has more than 30,000 full-time students. Seminole, which now offers four-year degrees as well as associate degrees, marked a milestone in 2014 as students from all five of its new baccalaureate programs were among 5,000 who received diplomas during the year. Only the second president since the college's founding, McGee has led the school since 1996 and forged strong ties to the local business community with targeted workforce education. The college also recently launched a collaborative program with Seminole County Public Schools to slash the number of incoming freshmen needing remedial English from 8% to zero by 2020. In 2006 she was selected as the top Community College CEO out of 1,200 nationwide and named the 2015 Leadership Legend by the county's Seminole Leadership program.
Business to Watch
Deloitte Consulting: One of the nation's largest professional service firms, Deloitte Consulting has opened a technology delivery center in Lake Mary and is hiring the first of what it hopes will grow to be a 1,000-person work force in Seminole County by 2018. With an average annual salary exceeding $60,000, more than 50% higher than the local prevailing wage, Deloitte employees are working out of a leased 130,000-sq.-ft. facility that formerly housed Verizon Communications, which has built its own larger facility nearby.
County Population:453,223 , up 7.0% vs. 2010
Unemployment rate: 4.5%
Per capita income: $45,753
Kissimmee/ Osceola County
High-Tech: Construction has begun on the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, hailed by local, state and regional leaders as a milestone in efforts to diversify Osceola County's economy. The $270-million, 100,000-sq.-ft. facility, expected to be completed in 2016, is a joint venture of the University of Central Florida, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, the Orlando EDC and Osceola County. Fitch Ratings assigned a strong AA- rating in January to the county's $61-million sales-tax revenue bond issue for the project, citing the county's "accelerating pace" of tax revenue growth, employment, tourism and housing, moderate debt levels and conservative budgeting.
Transportation: The SunRail commuter rail system is expanding into Osceola, possibly as early as 2016, and the county is rushing to prepare. The tracks are there, if the funding comes through. Stops are planned at the Tupperware Brands headquarters and in downtown Kissimmee, where a multimodal hub is being built to accommodate multiple trains, buses, autos and pedestrians.
Development: The northeast quadrant of Osceola County, largely ranch land owned by the Mormon Church, abuts Orange County and the Lake Nona Medical City mixed-use project. Osceola and the church's Deseret Ranch have worked to craft a long-range roadmap for what could end up being a community larger than Orlando and may send an initial plan to the state for review this year. The region also is under consideration for one or more new toll roads and a rail link to Orlando International Airport and Brevard County. At the urging of environmental groups, Osceola ordered an independent review of Deseret's proposal for the 133,000 acres.
Person to Watch
Cheryl Grieb: Osceola County Realtor and brokerage owner Grieb earned recognition for helping lead Kissimmee as a city commissioner during challenging years from 2006 to 2014 and is now serving her first year as an Osceola County commissioner. She ran on a platform calling for sustainable, environmentally sensitive growth, after commissioners weakened rules protecting resources. The commission reversed itself when the Audubon Society sued the county, and Grieb has pledged to protect the environment as Osceola continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the state. Grieb, who moved to Osceola from New Jersey as a second-grader in 1974, also made news in January when she and her partner of 22 years, Patricia Daugherty, became the first gay couple to wed at the Osceola County Courthouse after courts cleared the way for same-sex marriages.
Business to Watch
Photon-X: The innovator in patented 3-D technology moved to Kissimmee from Huntsville, Ala., in late 2013 to expand beyond military work and is finding success commercializing its sensor technology, including facial recognition sensors, in diverse fields from health care to energy. CEO Blair Barbour says the company, with 45 employees, is poised for double-digit growth. The firm, founded in 1999, was named a Growth Company to Watch by GrowFL, the Florida Economic Gardening Institute in 2014.
County Population: 303,841 , up 12.6% vs. 2010
Unemployment rate: 5.5%
Per capita income: $30,452
Long-term growth: Growth is rebounding from Leesburg in the north to Clermont, the county's largest city, in the south. But other Lake communities are preparing this year for development that will play out over decades. Mount Dora, for example, is working with the Lake County Economic Development Department to benefit from the expansion of the Wekiva Parkway into portions of northeast Lake. A joint planning agreement is in place to coordinate development of a major employment center on hundreds of acres along the planned Parkway extension for retail, commercial and possibly light industrial. To the south, Minneola has created a community redevelopment area for a 4,000-acre zone of four mixed-use developments near a new interchange off the Florida's Turnpike. The planned Minneola interchange has been approved for funding by the state DOT, and entitlements are in place for more than 8,000 residential units, 1.69 million square feet of retail and 1.4 million square feet of industrial space.