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Room to Grow

As more and more people find themselves relocating to the Orlando area, officials are eyeing a future full of potential.

It seems that folks across the country are steadily realizing what locals have known for quite some time: Central Florida is the place to be.

For the first time since the late ’50s, Florida is the nation’s fastest-growing state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And in just the past year alone, 315,000 new residents decided to call the Sunshine State home, with many setting their sights on the Orlando area. In fact, according to the Orlando Economic Partnership’s Orlando 2030 Report, The City Beautiful is projected to add more than 1,500 people to the region every week for the next 11 years, causing a spike in population to the tune of an anticipated 5.2 million people.

While the favorable weather, no state income tax, and proximity to theme parks and beaches are certainly attractive, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says there’s more than meets the eye.

“[Orlando] is a place where anyone would want to live; it’s a place of opportunity. Whether you’re retiring, seeking a job, seeking a place to start a family or looking for an education—we have world-class amenities,” Dyer says.

With the region becoming more and more attractive to outsiders, Orange County officials are paying close attention so they’re better prepared to handle an influx of transplanted residents, both now and well into the future.

Alberto Vargas, Orange County planning division manager, echoes Dyer’s sentiments that the huge population growth can be attributed to a desirable location with a high quality of life, including new job and educational opportunities and, of course, a favorable climate.

“All of these factors combined make Orange County appealing to a diverse number of people. The anticipated growth has led us to rethink our approach toward planning for a much more livable, sustainable and resilient future,” says Vargas.

And while Orlando certainly relies heavily on tourism dollars, it only equates to about 25% of what’s driving the local economy, according to Dyer. As a result, this projected growth should be a boost both in the short- and long-term, creating more diversified opportunities in industries like health care, technology and renewable energy.

“We are all about people coming to the community and bringing talent who are going to build the jobs of this next decade and the next century. That’s why it’s important for this to be a place that people want to move to and live,” Dyer says.

Of course, this seismic shift is not without its growing pains, and being able to handle this growth in a responsible manner is top of mind. Is there enough infrastructure? What about access to the likes of health care, emergency services and schools?

“In order to maintain the quality of life and be a place that people want to come, you have to address infrastructure needs. And transportation is probably No. 1 in that regard. Certainly the completion of the I-4 Ultimate, bringing Brightline from South Florida here and the expansion of our LYMMO system are all important aspects of that,” Dyer offers.

“And No. 2 is the cost and need for additional housing. Right now, we are in a housing deficit, which drives up the price. And that’s no matter if you’re at the low or high end, so it’s not just the affordable housing aspect,” he adds.

To that end, Orange County’s Vision 2050 is a comprehensive plan introducing a countywide framework that balances protecting the county’s natural resources with planned growth that makes sense.

“It preserves the character of existing neighborhoods and, at the same time, it identifies targeted areas within the urban corridor, creating opportunities for vibrant mixed-used and mixed-income neighborhoods,” Vargas says.

With the incremental growth expected from the next few decades, investments in transportation, education, housing and emergency services will play a key role in sensibly evolving.

“Vision 2050 aims to address many of these challenges through its comprehensive planning goals, objectives, policies, intergovernmental coordination, continued collaboration between regional partners and the commitment to sustainable and responsible growth,” Vargas adds.

Indeed, careful planning will be needed to help absorb not only the large number of people relocating to the area, but also both new and existing industries that are growing their presence here and turning Orlando into a potential hub for varied business activity. One need look no further than the area’s buzzing tech sector and how that has taken off in recent years.

“There is significant interest in Orange County as a hub of innovation around transportation, math, science and technology (MST), health care, gaming and sustainability,” says Simone Babb, Orange County’s chief innovation and emerging technologies officer.

Having the University of Central Florida, the nation’s second-largest public university, right in our backyard certainly helps, thanks to the school’s strong research component. What’s more, Full Sail University, Rollins College, Valencia College and Orange County Tech are also working to provide education and training for the workforce necessary to attract companies in emerging industries.

“With our strong collaboration and availability of resources, Orange County is an attractive area for business activity and vibrancy,” Babb states.

“What we are trying to do is build off of what we have,” says Dyer. “Other than a tourism economy, we are an innovation economy. … We are really trying to be a city that embraces all of that, but also makes it a place where it’s easy to start a new business. We are proud to create that ecosystem.”

Dyer says he considers Orlando a future-ready city where the government is willing to use advancements in technology to enhance the services it can provide and continue to be a metacenter for innovation.

“We want to be a local government that attracts talent here and build off of the things we have in place, recognizing that a large percentage of the jobs that will be here in 10 years do not exist today and being ready to accommodate that,” he says.

It’s that level of excitement and hope for the future that causes Dyer to consider himself the “happiest mayor in America.”

“I tell my mayor friends about all the great things we have going on, but I also tell them what’s really great about being the mayor of Orlando is that we are still in our infancy,” he says. “We are not like Philadelphia, Boston or Chicago where you’re totally grown up and you have the chance to maybe move the needle a percent this way or a percent that way. We are charting our course right now and it’s totally fun to be a part of it.”