In October of 2011, I flew from Orlando to Rhode Island, to spend a week visiting my father. I hadn’t seen him in several years, and felt it was time for us to reunite.
It was also a return to the city where I was born, and raised, and spent the first 38 years of my life. Fall River, Massachusetts is a remarkable beautiful city, old and historic, right along the Taunton River, with a rich ethnic heritage. There are neighborhoods that look like you’ve stepped back in time by several hundred years — something I badly miss in let’s-keep-building Orlando. Going from one neighborhood to the little, not much felt like it had changed. Everything was instantly recognizable.
But if there was one thing I did notice in the week, it was the radically different reactions I got as I visited local shops, ate at area restaurants, and meet old friends on the street.
Quite simply, there was a general sense of grumpiness in the air up there. Nobody seemed particularly happy. Everybody drove at breakneck speed, as if 90 percent of the city was rushing to an emergency. Twice I nearly got killed walking past a stop sign that a driver went plowing through.
Waitresses seemed surly. Nobody on the street smiled much. Frowns were a big hit.
I got a clear sense of frustration from the folks up there, that things were not going well in the city, that the recession and housing market collapsed had taken a major toll.
Nobody seemed optimistic that things would get better. There was almost an air of defeat, a sense that the only way to make things better would be to pack up and leave.
I would eventually fly back to Orlando, a city that had been devastated by the recession. We spent years riding a wave of growth, constructing new homes every 90 days with the expectation that the constant flow of newcomers would never end. Of course it did, once the housing market crashed. Our unemployment rate soared from 3 percent to double digits, our housing market crashed, and we became a poster child for a home foreclosure crisis. Our pain and misery index was sky high.
But one thing I observed when I got back to Orlando is a radically different set of attitudes here. Yes, the recession had been rough, but most people seemed to still believe better days were ahead. There was still an air of optimism about the future.
That was in 2011.
Today, Thanksgiving day in November 2014, Orlando is gearing up for the holiday season. As a resident, you can already sense the major roadways getting more congested as the tourists, snowbirds and international visitors start flocking here. The holidays are big business in Central Florida. Our theme parks have their holiday events, and cash registers start to ring so loudly it’s all you hear (in addition to all that Christmas music).
At the same time, it’s hard not to feel like so much of the optimism that carried people through the worst of the recession has been rewarded. Forbes magazine recently declared Orlando as the number 1 city in the nation for job growth. Our unemployment rate is now below the national average.
We just celebrated the grand opening of our new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. I went to the grand opening this month and it felt like half the nation was there to cheer it on.
The new SunRail commuter rail line that was launched in May has done so well that businesses are clamoring for weekend and holiday hours.
Developers are flocking back into the city. Downtown Orlando has so many new apartment complexes that rents are soaring.
It may sound strange to ask the question, but I’ll do it anyway. Can attitude impact economic growth? I’m sure that sounds nonsensical. Factors related to consumer spending, business success and then investment in workers, and the availability of credit for either business expansions or consumer loans seem like far more critical elements.
But sometimes I wonder. Here in the South, there’s always seemed to be a far greater degree of optimism about the region’s future than when I was in New England. For the most part, I don’t buy items in stores, dine at local restaurants, or check out new places and find workers who seem dour, or moody. We appear to have a service sector in Central Florida that brims with smiles and good cheer. Nobody hires Ebeneezer Scrooge as a cashier or host, everybody hires Bob Cratchit. It’s as if the Walt Disney World attitude of delivering a magical experience to one and all has spread to even the smallest shops.
I feel much the same way. I work three jobs, but don’t feel any need to complain about it. I’m blissfully happy for each one.
When I visit downtown Orlando at night, the restaurants, bars and nightclubs are packed. Downtown is cool again.
As Orlando prepares to keep building — a new soccer stadium, a new Orlando Magic entertainment complex, an expansion of the SunRail line, and so much more — it’s interesting that the loudest cries these days are from those who like their neighborhood just as it is, thank you, and would prefer the growth rate slow down, and fast.
I wish them luck. In Orlando, far too many equate growth with jobs, jobs, jobs, and welcome more of it. If we built it, they will come — with cash in hand.
Besides, there are plenty of places to live where growth is highly discouraged: San Francisco. Portland, Oregon. Boston. But this is not a Southern trait.
I’m glad that sense of optimism never quite left us, even at the worst of the recession. Whether it actually helped carry us through that abysmal economic crisis, I’m not sure. But it’s hard to deny that as families sit down for Thanksgiving dinner today, and gear up for the holidays, the mood is anything but grim. We’re a calm, serene and happy lot. And we’re ready to party in the holidays.
Contact Mike Freeman at Freeline Media or at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..