The seven counties comprising East Central boast an enviable combination of Florida’s natural assets and man-made best: 118 miles of Atlantic coastline and a chain of nearly 1,000 lakes teeming with bass on one side, real rocket liftoffs and out-of-this-world fantasy adventures on the other. But make no mistake, with a workforce of 1.8 million, four commercial airports, one seaport and a spaceport, East Central means business. The proof is in its top three thriving industry sectors: aviation/aerospace, tourism and technology.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, 2020 is turning out to be another banner year for Brevard County, aka “Florida’s Space Coast.” For the first time since NASA retired its shuttles in 2011, American astronauts lifted off from Cape Canaveral, this time aboard a Falcon 9 rocket built by the privately owned company SpaceX. Their return to Earth two months later in Falcon’s Crew Dragon capsule made history, too. It was the first water landing of U.S. astronauts since the last Apollo mission 45 years ago and the first-ever splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Up until the SpaceX launch in May 2020, the U.S. had relied on Russian rockets to send its astronauts to space, but no more. A second Falcon 9 launch from the Cape, tentatively scheduled for late October 2020, will send four astronauts to the space station for six months as, piece by piece, NASA and Space Florida work in tandem to achieve the ultimate goal of the Artemis program — landing the first woman and another man on the moon by 2024. Then it’s on to the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars.
In the meantime, many private companies, in addition to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are already hard at work or settling into new homes along the Cape for the purpose of developing the systems, equipment and technologies that will be needed by this industry sector in the years ahead:
• Blue Origin, the rocket company created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, continues building the New Glen rocket at its Cape Canaveral factory with an anticipated liftoff from historic launch complex LC-36 in late 2021. In April 2020, Blue Origin was chosen by NASA as one of three commercial companies to build lunar landers for its Artemis missions. The other two are SpaceX and Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics, a subsidiary of aerospace and scientific research firm Leidos.
• After failing to reach the International Space Station in its first un-crewed attempt in December 2019, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is on track to attempt a second un-crewed Orbital Flight Test no earlier than December 2020. If successful, Starliner’s first crewed mission — the Crew Flight Test — could take place in June 2021.
• Lockheed Martin has settled into its new Fleet Ballistic Headquarters in Titusville. Previously located in Sunnyvale, Calif., the FBM expands Lockheed Martin’s already significant presence on Florida’s Space Coast with the addition of 300 jobs.
• U.K.-based Printech Circuit Laboratories has opened offices in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s John Mica Engineering and Aerospace Innovation Complex in Daytona Beach. A supplier to the U.S. space industry for more than 30 years, Printech will serve its global markets in the “new space sector” from the Volusia County MicaPlex site; a separate manufacturing facility is planned.
• Firefly Aerospace, which established a manufacturing facility at Cape Canaveral in 2019, plans to launch its first advanced rocket for small satellites in late fall from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California if final testing and certification go as planned.
• In Orlando, aviation training firm SIMCOM is building a 95,263-sq.-ft. facility to house its flight simulators and serve as a headquarters. SIMCOM provides pilot and maintenance training over a variety of general aviation, business and commercial aircraft types to customers worldwide.
KEY PLAYERS: Alue Origin, Kent, Wa.; Boeing, Chicago, Ill.; Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Fort Worth, Tex.; SpaceX, Hawthorne, Ca
The Only Place You Need to Be
Choosing the right site for a new business or relocating an existing one is rarely a quick or easy process. Unless you’re Tom Vice — chairman, president and CEO of Aerion Supersonic – and the company you intend to relocate is focused on the business of high-speed flight. If that is your story, then Florida’s Space Coast is the only place you need to be.
On April 24, 2020, even as the coronavirus epidemic was ramping up across the nation, Reno, Nevada-based Aerion Supersonic announced plans to relocate and build a state-of-the-art campus, called Aerion Park, in Melbourne. Its purpose? To serve as corporate headquarters and manufacturing site for the company’s new AS2 Supersonic Business Jet that can fly at speeds of up to 1,000 miles per hour. Slated for completion by 2026, this $300-million investment is expected to generate at least 675 jobs in Florida by opening day.
Aerion Supersonic will relocate from Reno to Melbourne and form a new global headquarters and integrated campus for the research, design, creation and maintenance of the world’s first privately built supersonic aircraft.
“This is the hub of aircraft development,” says Vice, noting that all of Aerion’s manufacturing will take place in Melbourne, “and for that, I need workers with a very specific skill set — applied scientists who can conduct research into new propulsion systems, for example — and I can find them here.”
Vice has reason to be uber-positive about Melbourne because he and his company already have a history of success in this part of Florida. As a supplier to two of Northrop Grumman’s Florida-based Centers of Excellence — the Aircraft Integration Center in St. Augustine and the Manned Aircraft Design Center in Melbourne — Vice has spent a significant amount of time working along the Space Coast over the past 10 years and he has strong ties here. His kids attended Brevard County schools, he served on the board of governors at Melbourne-based Florida Institute of Technology and he owns a home in Satellite Beach. For Vice, relocating his business to the grounds of Melbourne International Airport doesn’t have the feel of a transcontinental move. “It’s more like coming home,” he says.
Space Florida, the state’s official aerospace economic development organization, had a role to play in Vice’s relocation decision too. The agency was created to strengthen Florida’s position in aerospace research, investment, exploration and commerce. Says Vice, “I can’t overstate the importance of Space Florida. It has served this state and my company well with new ways of thinking and emphasis on long-term trends. I don’t know of any other state that provides that kind of support.”
Between now and when Aerion Park is fully up and running in five years, Vice will continue to concentrate on his firm’s primary mission — manufacturing the world’s first privately built supersonic aircraft. And he couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of building supersonic jets — or what he calls “the next generation of global transportation networks” for ultra-high net worth individuals, corporations and heads of state.
Vice is passionate about supersonic air travel. “We fly today on business aircraft that was designed and created 59 years ago,” he says. “It’s time for a change.” Vice’s immediate goal is to build aircraft capable of reaching any two places in the world within three hours. And his AS2 supersonic jet is just the beginning of a long series of supersonic aircraft he intends to build in Melbourne; the even faster AS3 is already on the drawing board.
From the place where he watched Americans go up into space and where human exploration of Mars has its origins, Vice is focused on the future. “This is where aerospace lives,” he says, “and that makes this part of the world the only place we could locate Aerion. There’s just no other place we could be.”
Tourism has long been a prominent driver of East Central Florida’s economy, but never more so than in 2018. That year, Orlando logged its first ever 75 million visitors for a total estimated economic impact of $75.2 billion. The big three names in theme parks — Disney, Universal and SeaWorld — were launching new attractions, and prominent hotel properties across the region were adding guest rooms and amenities. In 2019, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom alone topped worldwide theme park attendance at 20.96 million visitors. Orlando was on a roll. Until it wasn’t.
When coronavirus came to town in March 2020, one by one, every tourist attraction and most hotels were forced to close their doors. The good news, however, is that Disney, Universal and SeaWorld have since reopened, albeit with limited attendance (reservations mandatory), enhanced sanitation measures, physical distancing and masks required. At every park, most of the attractions that were operating prior to the pandemic have reopened; many of those that were under construction and/or scheduled to open for the first time in spring or summer 2020 have been delayed. A fourth theme park planned for Universal Orlando Resort and announced in fall 2019 is still a go, but not surprisingly, it’s delayed. Originally slated for completion in 2023, Epic Universe is now expected to open in 2024.
Beyond Orlando, which typically gets the bulk of tourist attention, some uniquely Florida attractions along this region’s Atlantic coast are open to visitors too. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Brevard County, all main attractions, including the IMAX Theater, Shuttle Launch Experience and Universe Theater, have reopened with shorter hours and limited capacities to allow for social distancing.
And just up the coast in Volusia County is another tourist draw: Daytona Beach. Attractions include the iconic beach itself, on which limited numbers of cars can still drive each day in specified areas for a fee; beachgoers on foot are encouraged to limit gatherings to 10 individuals and to wear face masks when social distancing is not possible. Daytona International Speedway, famous for NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 500 races, is open on race days to a limited number of spectators; face masks are mandatory and grandstand seats are assigned to ensure social distancing.
KEY PLAYERS: SeaWorld Orlando; Universal Orlando; Walt Disney World, Orlando
or theme park fun, but this city has a serious side too. Only 20% of workers in Orlando are employed in the leisure and hospitality industry. Of the remaining 80%, a lion’s share has found jobs that are in some way related to technology. In fact, on WalletHub’s “Best Cities for STEM Jobs 2020,” Orlando ranks No. 12 nationwide.
Among recent developments in this East Central sector:
• Solai & Cameron Technologies and its subsidiary, Novatio Solutions, which helps companies automate business processes through artificial intelligence, is moving its headquarters and training center from Chicago to Orlando, creating 200 jobs.
• Digital media firm Electronic Arts is moving its central Florida headquarters from Maitland to downtown Orlando’s Creative Village district where University of Central Florida’s downtown campus opened last year.
• Orlando-based credit-card payment processing provider Fattmerchant plans to add 40 workers to its existing staff of 110.
• Tavistock Development Company is teaming up with Verizon to deploy the company’s 5G wireless technology across Lake Nona to create a 17-square-mile “living lab” community.
• Global professional services firm KPMG has opened its 800,000-sq.-ft. “Lakehouse” center in Lake Nona where it will train up to 800 KPMG professionals each week.
• Next door in Seminole County, leading public sector software and services firm GCR is opening a Center of Excellence in Heathrow that will focus on innovation in GovTech with the expectation of hiring 250 new employees over the next five years.
Research and development studies underway include:
• Python detection: From its new U.S. headquarters in Osceola County’s NeoCity technology district, Belgian nanotech research firm Imec and partners are developing a camera designed to allow faster and more accurate detection of the invasive Burmese rock pythons in the Everglades.
• Mosquito reconnaissance: Jonathan Hale, a senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Unmanned Aircraft systems program, is developing a drone program to assist Volusia County’s mosquito control efforts.
• Rocket propulsion: Researchers at the University of Central Florida have developed an advanced new rocket propulsion system.The system, known as a rotating detonation rocket engine, allows upper stage rockets for space missions to become lighter, travel farther and burn more cleanly.
KEY PLAYERS: Electronic Arts, Redwood City, Ca.; FattMerchant, Orlando; SemTech IT Solutions, Longwood
Logistics & Transportation
Never underestimate the power of good connections. Florida’s East Central might not be home to three heavyweight industry sectors — aerospace, tourism and technology — without them. Multiple links by air, sea, rail and road facilitate easy movement of both people and products into, out of and across these seven counties.
The region boasts four international airports — Orlando International, Orlando Sanford, Orlando Melbourne and Daytona Beach. With a total of 50.6 million passengers, Orlando International remains Florida’s busiest airport and, thanks to increased traffic in 2019, 10th busiest in the nation. International traffic at OIA increased by 8.4% over 2018 for an all-time high of 7.2 million international passengers. In neighboring Seminole County, Orlando Sanford International Airport logged a record 3.3 million passengers, a 6.3% jump over 2018 and a 93% increase from 2009. Sanford’s $62-million expansion is scheduled for completion by year’s end. Orlando International’s new South Terminal, expected to cost $2.7 billion, will add a train station to accommodate the high-speed Brightline trains scheduled to begin service in Orlando in 2022.
Port Canaveral remains the world’s second busiest cruise port, logging, at last count, a record 4.6 million multi-day passengers in FY 2019. At $110 million, total port revenue was up 6% with cruise revenue making up the lion’s share at $81.9 million. And while cargo was down 8% at $8.3 million, tonnage was actually up 1% to 6.5 million tons for the year. In 2019, the port broke ground on Cruise Terminal 3, a $163-million complex to include a 188,000-sq.-ft. building and a parking garage to accommodate 1,800 vehicles. The terminal received its certificate of occupancy in early June.
Terminal 3 is to serve as home port for Carnival Cruise Lines’ largest ship and the first North American vessel powered by liquefied natural gas — the 6,600-passenger Mardi Gras.
MSC Cruises will berth two luxury vessels at Port Canaveral for cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean beginning in November 2020, and Carnival Breeze, which was scheduled for transfer to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, will remain at Canaveral. In the meantime, renovations continue at two other Canaveral cruise terminals in anticipation of a third Disney ship — the Disney Wish, another LNG-powered vessel — scheduled to arrive in December 2021.
Distributors are taking notice:
• Sysco, a worldwide distributor of food products to restaurants, lodging establishments, hospitals and schools, has doubled the size of its FreshPoint Central Florida warehouse south of Orlando to 150,000 square feet and expanded its receiving dock. The facility, which currently employs 300, expects to add 150 jobs and distribute 6 million more cases of products by 2029.
• Amazon has begun hiring workers for its new distribution center located along I-4 in the Volusia County community of Deltona. The 1.4 million-sq.-ft. facility, which is expected to open in November 2020, expects to create up to 500 jobs by the end of 2023.
• Hiring is also underway at the recently completed 375,000-sq.-ft. fulfillment center in Groveland that is owned by Kroger and online grocery retailer Ocado.
KEY PLAYERS: Amazon, Seattle, Wa.; American Automobile Association, Heathrow; JetBlue, Orlando; Support Center, Orlando; Total Quality Logistics, Cincinnati, Ohio
In summer 2020, the Orlando Utilities Commission, which provides water and electricity to Orlando residents, took the first steps toward making good on its promise to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 as it began drawing 108.5 megawatts of electricity from two new solar facilities.
Newly opened are Taylor Creek Solar Energy Center in east Orange County and Harmony Solar Energy Center in St. Cloud, which together generate enough electricity to power about 22,000 homes. Owned and operated by Florida Renewable Partners as part of the Florida Municipal Solar Project, the two solar fields encompass 1,500 acres and collectively house nearly 600,000 rotating solar panels. Three other sites are projected to be operational by 2023.
Elsewhere in the region, Duke Energy’s DeBary Solar Power Plant on 445 acres in Volusia County began delivering power to customers in May 2020. The 74.5-megawatt facility is part of Duke’s goal to add 700 megawatts of solar generation in Florida through 2022.
KEY PLAYERS: Duke Energy Florida, St. Petersburg; Orlando Utilities Commission, Orlando
Boasting an enrollment exceeding 69,000 in 2019, the Orlando-based University of Central Florida is ranked among the top 20 most innovative universities in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Its Rosen College of Hospitality is ranked the No. 4 hospitality school in the world by CEOWorld.
In September 2019, UCF opened a downtown campus in partnership with Orlando-based Valencia College. Located 13 miles west of UCF’s main campus in the city’s 68-acre Creative Village development, the new site is within walking distance of the courthouse, law firms, high-tech startups, health care providers, non-profits and is a potential source of internships and job opportunities. Valencia has moved its entire Culinary Arts and Hospitality program downtown while continuing to offer a full range of classes at eight other sites across the region — five in Orlando, two in Kissimmee and one in Winter Park as well as accelerated skill training programs.
Elsewhere in the region, three private universities earned accolades on U.S. News & World Report’s “2020 Best Regional Universities South”: Rollins College in Winter Park (No. 1); Stetson University in DeLand (No. 5); and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach (No. 11), which also earned the No. 4 spot among “Best Schools for Veterans.”
Life Sciences & Health Care
AdventHealth Orlando is Florida’s No. 3 hospital with top 40 rankings in four specialties on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals 2020-21” list. Headquartered in Altamonte Springs, AdventHealth operates more than a dozen hospitals across Florida’s East Central region. Its Orlando-based pediatric hospital — Advent Health for Children — was also honored by U.S. & News World Report, ranking No. 32 nationwide in neonatology. In July 2020, AdventHealth Celebration opened a new, five-story patient tower and expanded cardiac and neurological services in anticipation of becoming the first comprehensive stroke center in the area in 2021.
Orlando Health’s Orlando Regional Medical Center was ranked the No. 9 hospital in Florida by U.S. News & World Report. On U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Children’s Hospitals 2020-21, Orlando Health’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children earned top 40 rankings in four pediatric specialties. In Brevard County, along Florida’s east coast, Health First has announced a $600-million restructuring plan that involves relocating Cape Canaveral Hospital and opening three wellness villages in Merritt Island, Melbourne and Palm Bay. The Merritt Island village will also include a new hospital. Construction is expected to begin in late 2020.
Life sciences research and innovation is alive and well in East Central too. Among recent developments:
• Four companies have indicated a desire to locate in the new UCF Nona Cancer Center scheduled to open in Orlando’s Lake Nona neighborhood in early 2021: Central Florida Health Services; Clinical Education Shared Services; Sarah Cannon Research Institute; and Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute.
• Dr. Jihe Zhao, a cancer researcher at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, has been awarded $100,000 from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
• Drawing from her own experience as a breast cancer patient, Lisa Crites created the “Shower Shirt,” a water-resistant garment to protect patients. Her Cocoa Beach-based company was listed as a five-star seller on Amazon in 2019.
• PT Genie, a national provider of home-based physical therapy, has relocated its headquarters from Cleveland to Lake Nona Medical City in Orlando.
Life & Leisure
The Villages in Sumter County has once again been crowned fastest growing metropolitan statistical area in the U.S. According to Census Bureau data released in March 2020, The Villages has added nearly 40,000 residents since April 2010. What’s not to like about more than 50 golf courses and 90 miles of golf cart paths, three town squares, 89 swimming pools and an estimated 2,500 clubs and organized activities?
With 118 miles of Atlantic coastline, including Canaveral National Seashore and the nearly 1,000 inland bodies of water that give Lake County its name, there is plenty to see and do in Florida’s East Central region, from the bald eagles at Merritt Island National Refuge to rocket liftsoff at Kennedy Space Center. Daytona and Cocoa are the best known beaches in these parts, but there are dozens of others to choose from. If you have time to take a walk on the wild side … or better yet, paddle a kayak, visit the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne. It is the only zoo in the country to offer guided kayaking tours around an animal exhibit. The zoo also offers Treetop Trek aerial adventures where you can zip, climb, crawl and careen through acres of lush landscapes.