It has been an interesting year for local economic development in Orlando. To say that 2020 was a year like no other for once is not hyperbole.
The city has not only been navigating a tough pandemic that has wreaked havoc on economies everywhere.
It has done so while also looking to diversify and grow sectors beyond its traditional heavyweight tourism.
Yes, these are local economic development challenges facing municipalities across the nation.
But, Orlando could be as well equipped to successfully execute a recovery strategy as any other out there and that is because of a growing understanding that decisions made at one end of the spectrum will affect the overall community.
In addition, the region was already on the verge of diversifying before coronavirus.
Redefining local economic development in Orlando in the post-pandemic era
The pandemic brought several high-profile projects to a screeching halt but, fortunately, the interruption was only temporary and that is the product of an early awareness and understanding of the principles of local economic development.
Already, we are seeing renewed activity on Electronic Arts’ plan to move to downtown Orlando.
Tavistock Development Company’s Lake Nona region has become one of the top research and development areas anywhere.
It sets up a period of time that could redefine Orlando’s image and that should excite everyone.
That we already have businesses like Lockheed Martin and Siemens locked into our region only adds to our potential.
But there is also a stream of up-and-coming young companies like the driverless car company Luminar and the young financial tech firm Stax (formerly Fattmerchant) that will help the tech sector continue to grow.
We need to create an environment that allows budding entrepreneurs – a population poised to grow after the devastating pandemic left many out of work – expand that list.
Government’s role in business and local economic development
Now, a government agency can rarely pursue an initiative without it somehow affecting the business community.
On the flip side, a business without some sort of government support – whether that be financial or even awareness through word of mouth – has an uphill climb.
That is not to say it cannot be done but just by mathematics alone it will be tougher.
But the beauty of economic development and, more importantly, local economic development is that when you start the momentum, it builds.
When a government supports local business, other local businesses see that as a path toward success.
Local economic development emboldens them to know that there is support in Orlando for the new businesses.
Initially, that creates an environment that essentially breeds entrepreneurs because they see a favorable landscape.
But, played out further, you also then start to get some buzz from businesses in other communities, first regionally, then across the state, then elsewhere.
Enterpreneurship: A numbers game
Entrepreneurship, as we all know, is a numbers game and the numbers will go up.
Just like the spike seen after the financial crisis of 2008, more people are out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of those people will have ideas, even if history has shown that financing could take a hit.
That is an opportunity. It is a potentially favorable numbers game.
If we have one entrepreneur in town, we are less likely to seed a thriving ecosystem than if we have 100.
We have heard that statistic about how many entrepreneurs fail and that is just the reality of it. It is hard.
But government can play a role in creating a better environment so that it can help increase chance of success, which increases how many businesses exist in Orlando.
That, of course, means greater revenue opportunities for the city.
The point of all of this is to create an understanding that everything that happens goes hand in hand. No decisions can or should be made in a vacuum.
Also, entrepreneurship is one of the few topics that can come to identify a community if done right.
Community buy-in AND local government participation
As Orlando moves into whatever version of its economy comes next, it is important to highlight a basic understanding of local economic development and why it is important.
Local economic development is, as it states, what officials do within a community or ecosystem to drive the region’s business climate.
It is a top-down ballgame, too.
Every city official, every business and every entrepreneur must buy in to an effort to build our economy. When that happens, everybody succeeds.
This includes the first-time entrepreneurs who have just created a small widget, the mayor’s office and everyone in between.
Because when a community buys in, it shows.
Put succinctly, local economic development is where it all starts.
See Tampa’s local economic development for reference
You really do not have to look far for a good example of how this works and why the role of municipalities in local economic development is important.
Before the pandemic hit, Tampa was widely recognized as one of the best up-and-coming startup communities in the country.
That was based on several factors, not the least of which was how in tune city leaders there are with the business community.
It helped that Priceline founder Jeff Hoffman is in town.
He invested in the community and helped build some momentum and awareness for the region.
But he would not have put himself out in front of the effort if he did not find a sympathetic ear at city hall.
It’s important to recognize how much of an impact can be made by the announcement that “Priceline founder Jeff Hoffman will keynote X conference and it’s all happening in Tampa”?
The city now hosts regular entrepreneurship conferences and I imagine it is ready to explode back onto the scene when pandemic restrictions lift.
Yes, Orlando wants to be the first Orlando and that is important.
But there is also nothing wrong with wanting to emulate some of the good things another community has been doing.
We need more of that.
Use the government’s megaphone
But we cannot lose sight of the most important thing here and that is that a thriving community must be built by the community itself with the government lending a hand where feasible.
Remember, this all comes with a caveat.
While, yes, the government needs to help, it does not have to pour millions into every business that asks for money.
We really are at a time when it can use its megaphone to draw attention to businesses and sometimes that is just as important as money – well, almost.
It is tough to judge the future success of a small startup that is just starting out.
But therein lies the opportunity for the city and why local economic development should be enticing.
When local economic development models take into account how to help startups, it sets a region up for the development of a true growth ecosystem.
That is a plan for the future.
That plan should include an established structure that will serve as a road map to success for new businesses.
It is a path toward a recession-proof ecosystem. The road map shows how to support a startup, regardless of its industry.
Not only does that mean a way to cut through red tape quicker when a business starts up, it also means the companies have a history to look to as they start their journey.
The key to big wins is small wins
Sure, a city can reap the rewards when the headlines scream that you have attracted the attention of businesses like Amazon or Facebook, who are considering a location within your community.
But the reality is these companies will not take your community seriously without an already thriving business community.
How do you get to that point? Well, that is what we have been tackling here.
You need to build your local businesses to the point where they thrive, hire, pay taxes and ultimately sing the community’s praises.
Regional pride cannot be assumed anymore. You need to earn it.
Just as Orlando wants to attract some good businesses from other communities here, Orlando’s best businesses are likely being courted regularly by other regions.
Local economic development is how to keep them.
They must know that the city is building.
The city is developing.
The city is growing and supporting their efforts as they navigate the crazy world of entrepreneurship.
So now that we have established the importance of building up our entrepreneurs, we should talk about diversification.
There are few people in this world that do not know which industry drives Orlando and Central Florida.
Tourism literally put our region on the map decades ago and, when it is thriving, Orlando thrives.
Visit Orlando annually touts how many visitors from other parts of the world we have received in the region.
Fortunately, that engine will never completely go away as people will always want to travel and take their minds off reality for a few days hanging out with a mouse and his friends.
Those are wins that we should never downplay but it is also important to put them in perspective as we look for other sectors to win in.
During the pandemic, tourism almost trickled to zero.
It was the equivalent of shock treatment for a region that relies on tourism to bring in the big bucks.
We went through this in 2008 during the financial meltdown.
Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell has been consistently lamenting publicly that we have become over-reliant on tourism.
He argued in a column that because “our entire economy depends on the rest of America having discretionary income and wanting to spend it here,” we are vulnerable.
The pandemic showed that.
Build a recession-proof economy
How do you build a recession-resistant economy?
Have more than one basket for your eggs.
We have two leaders – Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings – who appear to strongly support the tech community.
Recently, Orange County awarded about $3 million in grants to businesses and organizations that have been helping build and support our tech ecosystem.
The awards represent a perfect way to do what we need to do so that we are not only relying on our tourism behemoth.
That is a great initial step and we hope to see more of it.
But let’s take this one step further.
We know that local officials must be on board with local economic development efforts.
How does the library fit in here?
We know entrepreneurs can bring the positive attention many communities covet.
But there is more to local economic development than that, of course, though they are two especially important components.
One perhaps underrated component, in particular, is the role of public libraries and other resources in local economic development.
Libraries can and do play a role in business growth.
Oftentimes, the library is the first place that budding entrepreneurs turn for information and research related to entrepreneurship.
The resource is one of the few that entrepreneurs can afford in the early days of building a business and, well, it is readily available.
Fortunately, Orlando has one of the best in Orange County Library System.
About seven years ago, the library system debuted what is likely one of the most technologically advanced spaces for any library in the country.
The Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center for Technology, Innovation & Creativity lives up to its name.
As we push into an economy that increasingly sees sole proprietorships, the resources there will help these entrepreneurs by providing them with otherwise inaccessible or expensive tools.
Success begins with local economic development
Now that we have established what local development requires and that Orlando has a strong position moving forward, one key factor in determining whether it thrives here or not will be promotion.
How can we, as a community, make sure that local economic development wins are perceived as wins?
The answer is, of course, eyeballs.
If a small business in the community makes its first hire, everybody in the community should be ecstatic.
You cannot build a multimillion-dollar business without $1.
Just like you cannot build a 1,000-employee behemoth without your first employee.
So when that first hire comes onboard, the community ought to react – within their bandwidth, of course – like it is a big deal … because it is.
A supportive ecosystem breeds entrepreneurs who want to support the ecosystem.
In fact, that is one way to make sure local economic development works.
When you see businesses and entrepreneurs helping each other, those are wins.
It will take a sustained effort but real economic growth comes from a support system, realistic assessments, government advocacy and community resources.
It starts with local economic development.