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UF Campus in Gainesville
The University of Florida campus
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[Photo by Jeff Gage - UF Photography]

Some of the brightest colors in Gainesville's portrait are the median age of its residents, 23, making it the youngest city in Florida, and their educational levels — nearly a quarter of the population holds a graduate or professional degree. Both statistics are driven by the University of Florida, the economic engine for the city, Alachua County and the north-central Florida region. With a $2.5-billion budget and more than 13,000 employees, UF dwarfs any other government or private employer. Include affiliated Shands hospitals, and the budget grows to $4.2 billion and the employee count to nearly 26,000.

UF imprints on Gainesville the intellectual life, arts and culture of a larger metropolitan area — with relatively little traffic or other problems associated with a big city. An engaged citizenry has strengthened the public schools and fended off urban sprawl and polluting industries. Add athletics and the natural beauty of north-central Florida, which has the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world, and Gainesville's quality of life ranks with any city in Florida.

In recent years, it has taken the top-city title nationally, from Money magazine to Frommer's. Forbes and Portfolio.com have called Gainesville one of the smartest cities in America. The smarts trickle down to kids: Alachua County students consistently post the top scores among Florida's 67 counties on the SAT. Last year's average score was 1660, far above the state average of 1467 or national 1497.

For decades, town-gown relations were strained, and the business community clashed with slow-growth forces that often dominated local government. But in recent years, economic developers have come to tout Gainesville's smart growth and an economy that is greener than most of Florida's. For example, Gainesville was the first city in the nation to implement a solar feed-in tariff program, based on European models that let citizens invest in solar photovoltaic systems and sell the electricity they produce back to the utility. "We're secure in who we are now," says Santa Fe College President Jackson Sasser. "We're not going to be desperate about our growth."

Today, community and campus leaders share a vision for helping grow Gainesville around an innovation economy. Some of the area's most dynamic industry growth in recent years has come directly out of UF, with spinoffs such as RTI Biologics, now one of the top-20 employers in the county. UF's Innovation Square, a large-scale development under way between campus and Gainesville's vibrant downtown, physically connects the new intellectual vision between town and gown. UF President Bernie Machen describes the 10-year, 40-acre project as a "game-changer" for the community that will eventually bring in 3,000 creative-class jobs.

His words reflect real promise. Last fall, Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class," plotted out the growth of high-paying, high-skill jobs for knowledge, professional and creative workers across the United States. Gainesville posted the biggest gains in the nation, with a projected 17.7% increase in creative-class jobs.

The biggest question for Gainesville is whether the game-changing will extend to the city's majority African-American east side. Poverty remains a pressing problem there even as the rest of the city grows jobs and income. There is an enormous gap between Gainesville's prosperous areas and impoverished sections that also included four "D" schools in Florida's public-school grading system last year.

Small tech firms and creative entrepreneurs are not enough to erase the marks of poverty on Gainesville's picture. But if the community's new, grow-its-own strategy sprouts more RTIs, over time, the technology bridge between campus and downtown could also bridge the gap between east and west.

Who Lives Here?

Downtown Gainesville
Downtown Gainesville is a far cry from the ghost town it was in the early 1980s. [Photo: Stephen Morton/The Gainesville Sun]

» Gainesville: 116,615

» Alachua County: 243,574

» Gainesville is home to the youngest population in Florida, with a median age of 23, compared with the statewide median of 40.

» 43% of residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 25% of those statewide.

» Gainesville's population grew 22% between 2000 and 2009, faster than Florida's statewide 16% growth in those years.

» Alachua County's unemployment rate, just below 8%, has remained among the lowest in Florida throughout the economic downturn, but the jobs aren't necessarily high-paying: Median household income in Gainesville is $27,420, compared with the statewide median of $44,736.

» Gainesville's African-American population is 22%, higher than the statewide average of 16%, and Gainesville's black community lags in economic opportunity compared with the community overall. Only 5% of businesses are black-owned, slightly below the state average.

» Gainesville and Alachua County have an unusually high rate of poverty, especially among children. The poverty rate in Gainesville is 35%. In Alachua County, it's 24%. The public schools report that more than half of the county's schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced lunch.


On election-day maps, Alachua County invariably pops out as a blue island of Democratic votes in north Florida's sea of red. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink took 60% of the county's vote last November. In presidential elections, 60% of the county voted for Obama in 2008; 56% for Kerry in 2004; 55% for Gore in 2000. Gainesville voters drive the heavily Democratic numbers, while the county's outlying, more rural communities tend to be more conservative.

Alachua and High Springs

The second- and third-largest incorporated cities in Alachua County are Alachua, with 9,500 residents, and High Springs, with 5,000. Known for their historic, small-town charm and natural beauty, both cities straddle U.S. 441 just north of Gainesville. (Running a close third is another small town, Newberry, where Gainesville's western suburban sprawl meets rural horse farms. The county's other incorporated towns are Archer, Hawthorne, LaCrosse, Micanopy and Waldo.)

High Springs is known locally for antiques and worldwide among scuba divers and snorkelers for grottoed springs such as Ginnie Springs, which Jacques Cousteau reportedly described as "visibility forever."

Alachua is home to the 7,000-acre San Felasco Hammock State Preserve and its popular mountain-biking and horseback-riding trails. At the intersection of Interstate 75 and U.S. 441, the town is a magnet for distribution centers including those for Walmart and Dollar Stores.

But the town also has become a hub for young biotechnology companies. UF built its Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator there in 1995. Since then, the incubator has admitted 40 small biotech spinoffs. Thirty of them have succeeded, including RTI Biologics, now a 1,100-employee public company that remains headquartered in Progress Corporate Park next door to the incubator. Other incubator graduates that stuck around include AxoGen and Nanotherapeutics. The industry's workforce demands have drawn innovative biotech training to the small town. Santa Fe College opened its Perry Center for Emerging Technologies across U.S. 441 from the park, and Santa Fe High School launched its Institute for Biotechnology in a new science building just down the highway.

Undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau reportedly said Ginnie Springs, popular among divers and snorkelers, has "visibility forever." [Photo: Gene Bednarek]

Economic Life

Santa Fe College’s new Perry Center for Emerging Technologies in Alachua
Santa Fe College’s new Perry Center for Emerging Technologies in Alachua

Higher education

» With a $2.5-billion budget, more than 13,000 employees and 50,000 students, the University of Florida is the economic behemoth in Gainesville and Alachua County. Research grants alone brought a record $678 million last year, thanks primarily to a 45% increase in federal funding associated with the economic stimulus plan. The 2,000-acre campus houses all disciplines, including major colleges of business, engineering, law and medicine.

» Less well-known is UF's growing east-side campus. UF's investment into east Gainesville began in 2005 with a $7-million upgrade to an old Department of Transportation complex. Several administrative functions have moved there, including human resources, as well as some large engineering labs. The university's future plans gravitate to midtown and east Gainesville.

» Santa Fe College enrolls 24,000 students. Its six centers in Alachua and Bradford counties include a downtown Gainesville location and the new Perry Center for Emerging Technologies in Alachua that offers biotech and biomedicine degrees and training.


Shands is one of the largest medical centers in the Southeast.

» Gainesville's hospitals seem to be on growth hormones, especially along Archer Road's "hospital row" south of the UF campus. Private, non-profit Shands, affiliated with the UF Health Science Center, is one of the largest medical centers in the Southeast. It is Gainesville's second-largest employer, with more than 12,000 workers. In 2009, Shands opened the 500,000-sq.-ft., $400-million Shands Cancer Center and plans to continue growing to the south.

» Also on Archer Road is the third-largest employer in Gainesville, the sprawling Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, with 4,300 employees who care for 13,500-plus patients a year. The VA also is finishing up a big new patient facility that opens this year with 226 additional beds.

» North Florida Regional Medical Center, a 325-bed facility on the city's west side owned by HCA, recently announced a $58-million expansion that will include a new neonatal intensive-care unit and four-story patient building. The hospital will grow to 445 beds. Construction is scheduled to begin in September.

» Also based in Gainesville, SantaFe HealthCare is the non-profit parent company of AvMed Health Plans, Haven Hospice and SantaFe Senior Living. Formed in the early 1980s, SantaFe employs more than 1,900 around the state, 856 of them in Gainesville.

Cleaning Up

» At least three local companies have launched around the problem of how to keep hospitals, wounds and workers' hands clean. The largest, Xhale, opened a headquarters building at I-75 in west Gainesville and is marketing its HyGreen "intelligent hand hygiene" system to hospitals around the country.

» Quick-Med Technologies is developing antimicrobial technologies for wound-care dressing, hand sanitizers and other products.

» IrriSept, developed by Dr. Paul Rucinski, a Gainesville emergency room physician, is the only FDA-approved wound-cleansing system containing an anti-microbial agent. The product, by Gainesville biotech startup IrriMax, keeps bacteria from spreading and renders them inert during wound irrigation, with applications from operating rooms to battlefields.

Insurance services

» Nationwide Insurance is a major Gainesville corporate presence, with 1,300 employees working at its west side campus near I-75. Tower Hill Insurance Group and Florida Farm Bureau also are based here.

GlaxoSmithKline bought Gainesville-based Novamin for $135 million. [Photo:Gene Bednarek]


» With 30 biotech companies, Gainesville/Alachua ranks third in the state, after southeast Florida and Tampa Bay. They range from therapeutic firms such as Applied Genetic Technologies to agricultural companies such as Integrated Plant Genetics and biological device companies such as RTI, NovaBone and AxoGen. The big news last year was Alachua oral healthcare company Novamin's acquisition by GlaxoSmithKline for $135 million. The acquisition helped bolster the area's reputation for biotech but also meant the loss of a key firm and its employees.

AxoGen, founded in 2002, creates products to repair and protect nerves.


» Gainesville has spun off some intriguing internet companies, from biggies such as Grooveshark, a popular music-sharing platform, to newer startups such as Youtorial, recently selected as one of only a handful of companies in the nation to participate in The Kauffman Foundation's startup boot-camp.

Notable Firms & Developments

» The Florida Innovation Hub at UF is under construction between campus and downtown, with $8.2 million from the federal government and a $5-million commitment from UF. The 45,000-sq.-ft. facility is hoped to be a catalyst for startup companies based on UF technologies. The hub will provide the spinoffs with office space, labs, conference rooms and other resources. It also will house UF's Office of Technology Licensing. Related private firms, such as intellectual property law firms and venture-capital investment firms, are already onboard for space as well.

A rendering of the Florida Innovation Hub at UF, a 45,000-sq.-ft. facility meant to be a catalyst for startup companies based on UF technologies.

» The hub is part of a master plan known as Innovation Square, which UF leaders describe as "a 24/7 live/work/play urban research park environment." When it's finished, Innovation Square is expected to have more than a million square feet of space on 40 acres. Beyond the Florida Innovation Hub, UF officials stress that it will be a private development with private buildings on the tax rolls — "the very best in public-private partnerships."

» As the largest landowner in Alachua County with 70,000 acres of forestland, Plum Creek Timber could have an enormous impact on the city in the decades to come. (Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in Florida and in the United States as well.) The Seattle-based timber company opened its Florida headquarters in Gainesville in 2006 with an eye toward possible development to the north and east of the city. It has built many connections with UF — Plum Creek's board met in Gainesville last fall, with UF President Bernie Machen as speaker — and so far has been a good environmental steward, with 24,000 of its local acres in conservation easements. Some wishful thinkers say that Plum Creek's acreage on the east side of the county, combined with UF's academic research muscle, could someday lead to a large science/real estate deal on the scale of Scripps, Burnham and Torrey Pines research institutes in other parts of Florida.

» The Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention is planned for Gainesville's Depot Park, where the 55,000-sq.-ft. facility will also be a significant environmental reclamation and urban renewal project for the east side. The museum is named for Dr. James Robert Cade, best known as the inventor who led the UF team that created Gatorade. It's already having a significant impact on Gainesville's innovation economy, with the $50,000 Cade Prize for Innovation being awarded for the second year to a Florida inventor who needs seed funding.

Building Green

» Local firm PPI Construction Management has created a niche in sustainable academic construction and is building UF's new Innovation Hub, among other projects around the state.

Brainy Work

» On a funding and hiring spree as it nears its 10th anniversary, Banyan Biomarkers last fall landed a $26.3-million Department of Defense contract for work on its diagnostic tests for traumatic brain injury.

» A younger Alachua company spun out of UF's Brain Institute, Optima Neuroscience, landed $2.5 million in early-stage funding from a group of angel investors and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Optima is developing hardware for its seizure-detecting brain-monitoring technologies.

Major Employers

» University of Florida, 13,300

» Shands Hospital, 12,588

» Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 4,317

» Alachua County School Board, 4,299

» City of Gainesville, 2,200

» Publix Super Markets, 2,056

» North Florida Regional Medical Center, 1,700

» Nationwide Insurance, 1,300

» Walmart (distribution and retail), 1,240

» Alachua County, 1,120

» SantaFe HealthCare, 856

» Santa Fe College, 796

» Gator Dining Services (UF's food contractor), 625

» Dollar General Distribution Center, 624

» Meridian Behavioral Health, 620

» Tower Hill Insurance, 500

» RTI Biologics, 484 (at the Alachua campus)

Must-Know Contacts

Todd Pow
» Todd Powell, director, Florida real estate for Plum Creek Timber, the largest landowner in Florida [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
» Xhale CEO Richard Allen, Gainesville's entrepreneur of the year in 2010, is a co-founder of RTI. He led its IPO in 2000.

» Brian Beach, senior vice president for administration and business ventures at UF, is the point person for Innovation Square.

» Ward Boston III, president/CEO, North Florida Regional Healthcare

» Deborah Butler, president, Butler Enterprises, a shopping-center developer looking to make major expansions over the next few years

» Joseph Cirulli, who established Gainesville Health & Fitness Center 33 years ago and built it into a 65,000-sq.-ft. club with more than 28,000 members, is a global figure in the fitness industry.

» Developers Ken and Linda McGurn get almost single-handed credit for transforming downtown Gainesville from a ghost town in the early 1980s.

» Brent Christensen, president/CEO, Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and the chamber's Council for Economic Outreach

» David Day, director, UF Office of Technology Licensing

» James Doughton, publisher, the Gainesville Sun

» Jeremy Foley, UF athletics director

» Weaver Gaines, chairman and general counsel at Nanotherapeutics, has been a key figure in the statewide biotech industry and is chairman emeritus of the trade group BioFlorida.

» Michael Gallagher, president/CEO, SantaFe HealthCare

Jackson Sasser
» Jackson Sasser, president, Santa Fe College

» Sam Goforth, market president, Wachovia Bank, a Wells Fargo company

» Tim Goldfarb, CEO, Shands HealthCare

» Robert Hutchinson, executive director, Alachua Conservation Trust

» Brian Hutchison, chairman/CEO, RTI Biologics

» Roland Loog, director, Visit Gainesville

» Craig Lowe, Gainesville's mayor

» Bernie Machen, UF president

» Tom Mallini, president/CEO, M&S Bank

» Pegeen Hanrahan, former two-term mayor of Gainesville who works in conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land [Photo: The Independent Florida Alligator]

» Thomas McIntosh, president, Prudential Trend Realty; incoming chairman of the Chamber of Commerce

» Lee Pinkoson, chairman, Alachua County Commission; longtime optician who has served on the commission since 2002

» Win Phillips, UF vice president for research

» Sue Washer, president/CEO, Applied Genetic Technology; entrepreneur; chair of BioFlorida

» Rosa B. Williams, community activist involved in healthcare, education and many other causes, especially those aimed at increased opportunities for Gainesville's black community

Quality of Life

Eastside High School- Institute of Culinary Arts and Entrepreneurship Magnet program
Eastside High School is home to the Institute of Culinary Arts and Entrepreneurship Magnet program. [Photo: Gene Bednarek]


Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

The reputation is strong for elementary, middle and high schools alike. Generous voters help. They passed an extra-mil property tax in 2008 to fund arts programming in the schools and offset state budget cuts. In addition to posting the highest SAT scores in the state, the district has the highest rate of passed Advanced Placement tests in Florida. Four of the county's high schools are included in Newsweek's 2010 list of "America's Best High Schools," with Eastside, known for its IB program, Institute of Culinary Arts and Entrepreneurship Magnet, in the top 20. But while the district earned an overall "A" on Florida's statewide grading system last year, it hasn't been able to turn around several east side schools; nearly a quarter of students don't graduate; and 55% of 10th-graders did not pass the reading portion of the 2010 FCAT.


» In 2009, Alachua County ranked 7th among Florida's 67 counties in crime, with 5,004 crimes per 100,000 residents.


» In 2008, Alachua County ranked 35th in the state in total per capita taxes levied.

Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art [Photo: Gainesville/Alachua County VCB]

Arts & Culture

» Gainesville enjoys the art, music, theatrical, dance and literary offerings of a much larger city, from the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra to the Hippodrome State Theatre downtown to the Dance Alive National Ballet. The UF Cultural Plaza is home to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Florida Museum of Natural History with its permanent Butterfly Rainforest exhibit — an enormous, screened vivarium with 60 to 80 species at any given time and hundreds of free-flying butterflies. Santa Fe College ads to the mix a 10-acre teaching zoo, training ground for the college's zookeeper students and also open to the public, as well as the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium, with digital sky projectors.


» Gainesville's downtown is a combination of stately historic buildings such as the Hippodrome State Theatre and mixed-use residences atop restaurants, small retail shops, busy bars and coffee places. The farmer's market draws a crowd on Wednesday afternoons, as does the free music at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza. A few blocks east of the action are the restored mansions in the city's growing bed and breakfast district.


» More than 90,000 pilgrims show up for the sports mecca that is Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka The Swamp, on fall Saturdays. But UF athletics bring many more events to the city — from basketball, swimming and gymnastics at the O'Connell Center to Gator baseball and softball. The city also has a big drag-racing event each spring — Gainesville Raceway's NHRA Gatornationals.

"The Swamp," Ben Hill Griffin Stadium [Photo: UF Photography]


» Some of the best snorkeling, tubing, canoeing and kayaking in the Southeast are a short drive to the Suwannee River, its clear tributary the Ichetucknee and the Santa Fe — all dotted with springs that stay 72 degrees year-round. Another natural gem is Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, 22,000 acres of wetland and prairie that Wiliam Bartram described as the "Great Alachua Savannah." The prairie is known for its alligator, herds of bison and wild horses, and more than 270 species of birds. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens has the largest public display of bamboos in the state and the largest herb garden in the Southeast.

Herd of Bison
Paynes Prairie is known for its herds of bison. [Photo: Michael Warren/SILVER IMAGE]

Florida's Eden

» The artists who portray the area's natural beauty in photographs, poems or plein-air paintings banded together a decade ago to form the non-profit Florida's Eden to try to focus local leaders on building just the sort of "creative economy" the business community finally has embraced. The group is led by longtime Gainesville artist Annie Pais. Its latest project is the Blue Path, a campaign to make springs protection an urgent environmental and economic issue for Gainesville and surrounding communities.

Pizza and Fitness

» Gainesville residents are fond of both consuming calories and working them off. The city's Domino's Pizza franchise — eight stores owned by local businessman Freddie Wehbe that are collectively known as Gator Domino's — sells more pizza than any other in the nation. Meanwhile, the city has been named one of the fittest in the nation and the private Gainesville Health & Fitness Center one of the top fitness clubs.

Gainesville Health & Fitness Center


» Gainesville's citizens tend to be generous. The city's United Way of North Central Florida is ranked second nationally in total impact per capita compared with cities with a similar population size.

Urban Legends

If you stick around Gainesville long enough, you'll hear that 1) UF entomologists inadvertently created love bugs in an experiment gone horribly awry and 2) the Confederate Gold is buried somewhere in eastern Alachua County. The first is definitively debunked, and the second stems from the fact that Florida's first U.S. senator, David Levy Yulee, who was also the nation's first Jewish senator, had a large plantation in the Archer area that hosted the Confederate "Gold Train" in 1865.

Why I Live Here

Erik Sander

» "I can go practically anywhere in this great country, but I choose to live in Gainesville because this community challenges and excites me every day. Gainesville offers everything from culture and the arts to sports of all kinds; and the breadth and depth of research and innovation never fail to amaze me. There's something special about living in a forward-looking city where innovation, whether through technology or the arts, is in the water and the air. I see the future being made every day through the students and technologies that are developed in Gainesville — and that keeps me young every day.

Erik Sander
Director of industry programs
University of Florida College of Engineering

Lola Haskins

» "I'm a poet and a non-fiction writer. Since I grew up near San Francisco, you might think I'd find Gainesville limited. I don't. We have a depth of easily accessible resources that belie our size, including visual art, music, dance and theater. I've seen plays that I saw in New York that I thought were better here. And I love the diversity of our citizens and the fact that they include smart people of every stripe. Anything you might want to learn, you can find someone to teach it to you. But what really ices Gainesville for me is its access to protected lands like San Felasco Hammock or Paynes Prairie and the chance to kayak the myriad lakes, rivers and salt marshes within easy driving distance. Sure, we're growing faster than I wish we were, and sure, there's football, but the town seems to be holding its own. And as long as we go on protecting our lucky beauty — and happily, there are enough of us here to do that — Gainesville will be a great place to live.

Lola Haskins

» "In my line of work (author, consultant, professional speaker) I could literally live anywhere in the world, but my wife and I absolutely love this town and are extremely happy and proud to call Gainesville home. We have everything any big town has to offer: A wonderful arts community, great schools, world-class sports, superb dining and incredible outdoor recreation — all infused with the energy of one of the most intellectually vibrant and innovative cities I have ever been in. The other thing I love about Gainesville is that it is easy to get involved and make a difference. I used to run a Rockefeller Foundation in South Florida and could not get the folks from the chamber to even return my calls, but here in Gainesville I have found every sector of the community to be welcoming and inclusive. And the Chamber returns my calls very promptly!"

John Spence
Business consultant and author of the business books
"Excellence by Design" and "Awesomely Simple"

View from a Competitor

Florida Trend asked an economic development professional in another Florida market to assess anonymously the city's strength and weaknesses.

Strengths: "Gainesville has made tremendous strides as a legitimate competitor in the business recruitment and development game. Formerly known as the "Peoples' Republic of Alachua County" among site selectors and business recruiters, the community shed its disdain for economic growth and provides a far more welcoming, pro-business posture.

The state's flagship university, UF is a world-class academic and research institution, fueling tremendous advances in biotechnology, life sciences and the commercialization of many related technologies. Business leaders have done much to foster the "creative class" culture. There has been significant recognition by "new age" economic guru Richard Florida about Gainesville nurturing the educational, social and technological interfaces that make it attractive to entrepreneurs and tech-based businesses.

Added to this is the strikingly beautiful natural environment surrounding Alachua County, living up to the phrase ‘Florida's Eden.' City leaders have also done much to plan for the infrastructure and livability of the community in a very visually appealing manner."

Weaknesses: "Stripping away the largesse of UF, its students and the epic economic impact of the community associated with its presence, you have a small community with a less-than-diversified business base. Chronic poverty rates and limited workforce educational skill-sets among the population have raised questions about long-term viability for growth in industries outside technologies promoted by the university and other business advocacy groups.

Expanding and improving air service at the Gainesville Regional Airport will also need to be explored further if the community desires further diversification of its economy and the attraction of national and international technology-based businesses."