ORLANDO – Ask people around the country what Orlando is all about, Laura Kern said, and they will quickly respond that the City Beautiful is basically one big giant theme park.
Sometimes it’s not easy, she admits, to get out the message that Orlando is not a one-industry town.
“Nobody knows the culture here in Orlando,” she said. “They all think Disney.”
What they might not think of, she added, is everything else the city has to offer, from popular neighborhoods like College Park to a revitalized downtown, to large entertainment venues like the Amway Center and the Citrus Bowl, to top universities like the University of Central Florida and Valencia College, to an increasingly diverse economy based as much on health care, business services and digital media firms as tourism or hospitality.
That’s a lot to promote, she added.
“I love Orlando, and I’ll talk to anybody about it,” said Kern, the associate director of marketing and communications for the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.
The commission’s job is to help promote everything Orlando has to offer to new businesses, and to assist the ones already here to be sure they continue operating.
But another job of the agency located at 301 E. Pine St., Suite 900, in downtown Orlando, she added, is to boost the city’s image, so that everyone knows Orlando is about more than being the closest city to the nearby theme parks.
‘”We need a brand that the whole region can rally around,” Kern said. “We need to find our identity as a city.”
It’s an identity, she added, that doesn’t have to begin or end with the tourism industry, even though that has historically been one of the top engines for local job growth and economic development for decades.
“The hospitality industries are all located here,” she said. “This is the hub of it all, so why not be here?”
But these days, she added, Orlando’s economy is based on so much more.
Consider the growing number of digital media firms located in the city, many of them setting up shop at The Plaza, the business tower in the heart of downtown on Orange Avenue — like Envy Labs, a Web development shop that employs creators, designers, engineers, educators and problem solvers.
They come here, Kern said, because of the city’s well-educated workforce, students coming out of the University of Central Florida or Full Sail University with a greater understanding of digital media than many of their elders.
“The brain power within our IT (information technology) sector is just amazing,” she said, adding that if an employer needs a particular skill set, “UCF will develop a program just for them.”
The city also attracts financial services companies, and health care firms eager to cluster around the Medical City Complex at Lake Nona, making that area in east Orlando a hub for the growing health care field.
The job of the Economic Development Commission, she said, is to ensure word gets out about that rich mix of economic diversity, cultural amenities and affordable housing.
“Recognized by BusinessWeek as one of the world’s ‘most fiercely competitive’ communities, Orlando offers unlimited potential on par with the nation’s top business centers; a diverse spectrum of industries; young, vibrant, talented workforce; multi-modal access to destinations around the globe; a do-what-it-takes attitude; and year-round sunshine,” the commission notes on its Web site.
“Our mission is we retrain, attract and grow jobs for our region,” Kern said. “Our business environment does really well. Our taxes are low, and our workforce is a big selling point, too. We have a really strong business development team that goes out to conferences across the world. When someone is ready to expand and open another office, we’re ready.”
The EDC is operating at a time when Florida’s economy is showing increased signs of being on the mend. In October, Florida’s unemployment rate dropped from 8.8 percent to 8.5 percent, the lowest since December 2008.
Although that’s still above the national average of 7.9 percent, Florida did create 12,100 new private sector jobs in October, and the unemployment rate was 1.7 percentage points lower than in October 2011, when it was 10.2 percent.
“In October, 12,100 more Floridians found employment in the private sector and the incomes that allow them to provide for their families, particularly with the holidays approaching,” Gov. Rick Scott noted when the figures were released. “We are creating an environment that fosters job creation, economic development and provides a skilled workforce.”
The governor also noted that Florida job postings went up strongly last month — by 28,140, an increase of 11.9 percent, for a total of 264,636 openings, according to the Help Wanted OnLine data series.
The news was even better in the Orlando Metro area (which includes Kissimmee and Sanford), where the unemployment rate in October was 7.9 percent, one of the lowest for any large metro area in the state, with only Jacksonville (7.7 percent) and Panama City (7.8) doing slightly better.
The governor’s office noted that in another positive trend, more people are moving into Florida, with net in-migration up to an estimated 134,500 in 2012. That’s nearly twice the in-migration of 68,000 into the Sunshine State in 2011.
Of those moving here for the first time and new to Orlando, Kern said, what they’re finding is a whole lot more than simply theme parks.
“Orlando is very well known, but poorly understood,” she said. “That’s what people need to understand. It’s a crazy puzzle, Orlando.”
To learn more about the Metro Orlando EDC, call 407-422-7159 or log on to Metro Orlando EDC.
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