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An economic tale of two cities in Florida


More Than the Mouse
Tourism will always shape central Florida's image, but a very real, very modern economy also has emerged.

Old: Disney's arrival forever stamped central Florida as a tourism haven ...
New: ... But simulation and tech businesses have gained critical mass.
[photographs: Florida Photographic Collection left; Naval Air Warfare Center right]

In March, Golf Channel commentators broke from chattering about Tiger Woods' and Ernie Els' performances in the Tavistock Cup at Orlando's Lake Nona Golf & Country Club to gush about a nearby complex of research labs, education facilities and hospitals that make up Orlando's new "Medical City."

Over piney treetops, viewers got a long look at the biotech hub, which includes Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and UCF's medical school. The spotlight on Medical City was a rare glimpse at a part of the region's economy that is usually defined in terms mouse ears, roller coasters and performing killer whales.

Orlando's non-tourism economy had been evolving toward critical mass for more than a decade when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the subsequent collapse of tourism — turbocharged the effort to diversify the region's economy.

A local economic development agency commissioned a study to examine the city's non-tourism assets and to develop a plan to promote them. The strength of the area's technology sector, with a backbone in both simulation and digital media, surprised even some local officials.

Today, Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission's marketing materials focus on the region's tech sector. Tourism takes a back seat. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer held his state of the city speech in February at UCF's College of Medicine at Medical City.

Word is getting out. Former President Bill Clinton cited Orlando's success in the simulation industry as something other cities should mimic. Clinton referred to Orlando as a "prosperity center" and home of the "computer simulation boom," boasting the city has 100 computer simulation companies during an interview last fall on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" news program. "They are doing great," Clinton says.

For their part, local economic developers say they're happy with the visibility that tourism provides for the area — but they now feel confident they've got a lot more to sell. "All we are doing now is building on that great brand identity and really creating a brand platform that Orlando is also a great place to do business," says Gary Sain, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.

St Petersburg

A New Sense of Place
The city's image as a retiree haven persists, but the reality is something else entirely.

St. Petersburg
Old: Green benches once were iconic images of the city ...
New: ... But the downtown waterfront today is young and stylish. [Right: Mark Wemple]

The dark green benches that became iconic symbols of downtown St. Petersburg have been gone for nearly 50 years — removed by city leaders in an effort to update the image of a city so rich with white-haired retirees that it was referred to as "God's waiting room."

The old image of St. Petersburg as a retiree haven persists, however — some non-residents still think the benches are there — even as the city has evolved to become a magnet for young professionals and families.

Today, a revitalized downtown boasts sidewalk cafes, shops, a grocery store, condominium towers, nightclubs and a city-owned stretch of waterfront that has preserved the best views for the public. The Dali Museum's new home on the waterfront downtown has earned national accolades and further cemented the city's reputation as an arts center.

The changes mirror demographic shifts. In 1970, people 65 years and older made up 30% of St. Petersburg's population. By 2010, that portion had fallen to 15.7%.

Civic leaders describe a gradual turnaround with many turns and starts along the way. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and others cite the redevelopment of the historic waterfront Vinoy hotel in the 1990s as an important trigger for downtown redevelopment.

Another key change was the addition of shops and restaurants along Beach Drive and the presence of downtown employers that supplied a steady stream of young professionals. For downtown to succeed "it has to become a place where people would go if they had nothing to do," says Baker.

A big factor in the city's progress was improvements to nearby neighborhoods — amenities such as dog parks, water slides at public pools, better bike paths and more sidewalks. "It wasn't one little thing," says St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher.

Ironically, says Steinocher, many of the changes have ultimately been geared toward what the green benches helped to create for an earlier generation — a sense of place. "The irony of what people liked about the green benches" he says, "is you could see people."