Beyond the shadow of the region’s theme parks exists a booming cultural infrastructure, ripe for an ever-growing population of hip millennials, reveling in all that Orlando has to offer while wearing skinny jeans and drinking nitrous coffee. Central Florida is a Golden Girls Narnia no longer and is being embraced as a refreshing new home base for national trendsetters and civic-minded social entrepreneurs itching to make an impact on the place they’ve chosen to make their home.
With a median age of 37, compared to the statewide median of 41.8, Orlando is younger than most people think. In fact, Orlando was ranked the No. 3 top millennial home buying hot spot by Realtor.com. The growth in residents between the ages of 20 and 29 from 2010 to 2013 was 8.1 percent based on U.S. Census data, placing Orlando as the third best magnet for millennials according to Forbes.
Adding to that are the roughly 500,000 students within a 100-mile radius of Orlando pursuing higher education at any given time of the year, making Orlando a prime location for companies to recruit strong talent. The region offers more than 35 colleges, universities, technical schools, and private institutions as well as continuing education programs, including the University of Central Florida (UCF), Full Sail University, Rollins College, Stetson University, Florida Institute of Technology, Florida Polytechnic University, Keiser University, Webster University, Beacon College, Valencia College, Seminole State College, Lake-Sumter State College, and more. In recent years, record numbers of these students have been choosing to stay in Orlando after they graduate to pursue long-term employment and high-impact careers. In fact, 53% of UCF alumni stay to live and work in our region after graduation.
The new UCF Downtown Campus will bring roughly 8,000 students to live, work, and play in the city’s core, creating an even more vibrant and thriving downtown.
“Orlando has been the best ‘living lab’ that any entrepreneur, starter or emerging professional could ever imagine,” says UCF graduate Chris Castro, the City of Orlando’s Director of Sustainability. “Just over the last five years, I’ve witnessed Orlando transform into a hub for innovators, change-agents and active citizens working to shape our city into one of the best in the world, and has empowered so many people to use their talents and expertise to make Orlando a world-class destination, not just for hospitality and entertainment, but for arts and culture, sustainability, tech, and entrepreneurship to name a few.”
Castro should know. He’s also a social entrepreneur, having launched environmental group IDEAS for US (Intellectual Decisions for Environmental Awareness Solutions) as well as a pedal-powered farming movement called Fleet Farming that is making international headlines.
Fleet Farming’s headquarters is East End Market, a food hall and business incubator located in a beautifully renovated church in one of the City’s official Main Street districts, Audubon Park. East End Market was founded by John Rife, a Furman graduate who returned to his hometown after much soul searching abroad. He founded East End with the idea to create an innovative food hub for fledgling restauranteurs that functions as a community gathering space and ground zero for a resurgence in a local slow food movement.
“With the amazing food and culture renaissance we’re experiencing in the region, I finally feel like we’re not just the little brother to the cool older cities like Austin, Portland or Brooklyn. We’re totally holding our own. These cities are seeing that we’ve got something really special happening here in Orlando and that we’re all grown up, and dare I say worthy of envy,” said John Rife.
Purposeful organizations and pragmatic visionaries are dominating the business landscape. Stories abound about mindful business models centered on giving back, like that of Downtown Credo, a pay-what-you-can coffee shop launched in 2012 by proud Orlandoan Ben Hoyer, which now has four locations operating across the region, as well as a strong charity arm that is making palpable impacts in people’s lives. Clean the World, founded by Shawn Seipler in 2009, is a phenomenally successful C corporation with a strong business model based on recycled used hotel soap bars and donating them to impoverished people around the world. Seipler’s simple idea has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people by preventing hygiene-related deaths.
Orlando is also proving itself to be the ideal proving ground for a growing tech scene. The Church Street Exchange, a formerly vacant building in downtown’s historic Church Street district, is now a bustling base for three stories of startup tech companies and established businesses like PlanSource and PowerDMS. The same building is also home to Orlando’s longest running co-working space, StarterStudio.
Millennials may think they run the town, and when you look at what has been happening lately in the region, you can’t really blame them. Forbes is right, Orlando isn’t just for old people or vacationing families anymore, it’s a veritable millennial boom town.
Photography by Jim Hobart, Macbeth Studio.