Forum delves into what Gainesville needs to stay competitive


David Day, director of the University of Florida's Office of Technology Licensing, speaks during the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce's 'What's Next?' Regional Economic Forum at the Santa Fe College Fine Arts Hall Thursday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 4:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 4:47 p.m.

Innovation Gainesville launched in January 2010 with an emphasis on starting and recruiting companies in health and green technologies, the idea being that those are existing strengths of the community that aligned with the economic opportunities of the time.

But the global economy is changing, so the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce is updating its economic development plan to adapt to the times.

More than 300 people attended the Chamber's "iG Regional Economic Forum" on Thursday morning at the Santa Fe College Fine Arts Hall to hear about research into the area's strengths and weaknesses and what the community needs to do to take advantage of emerging economic trends.

After studying the local economy for six months, Amy Holloway, president of Avalanche Consulting, said "the list of assets is enviable."

Those include schools from K-12 to college, business incubators, a growing amount of venture capital funding in local businesses and research funding at the University of Florida.

The research funding and degree concentrations at UF — led by medical sciences and agricultural sciences — are in areas that attract companies, she said.

The demographic data show that the area still faces some challenges, however. Population growth — which she said is important for service providers from plumbers to restaurants to grow — has been slowing.

As a college town, Gainesville is below average in the number of people per capita ages 30 and older, which Holloway said presents a challenge when companies grow to the point of needing to hire middle-tier managers with five to 10 years of experience. She suggested reaching out to alumni who live elsewhere "so you don't lose the base of companies you worked so hard to create."

The median household income here is lower than the U.S. average, which can be used to lure companies interested in cheap labor, "but you want to bridge that gap so everyone here can prosper," she said.

Holloway said the one thing to accomplish to be more competitive than 99 percent of communities would be to align education at all levels with the skills local companies will need.

"It sounds like a no-brainer but it happens poorly in most areas," she said.

Keynote speaker Rebecca Ryan, author of "ReGeneration," said the U.S. has been in a winter cycle as institutions decline as a result of the 9/11 attacks and recession. Based on historic trends, the U.S. will emerge with a spring of prosperity starting in 2020, she said.

Ryan had a warning for cities that stop investing and start making cuts.

"Those cities that hunker down and say no more spending tend to lose their relative ranking because when spring comes again, they are not investing in any of the new things that come in bloom."

Ryan said Gainesville is hitting spring a little early based on all the announcements of new technology companies coming to town.

She said decisions that community leaders make in the winter cycle will be inherited by their children and grandchildren in the spring.

With technology making it possible to work anywhere, she said the amenities a community has to offer young people are key.

Those include cost of living, the availability of jobs or an environment to start their own businesses, healthy communities, smart communities and "what's there to do after 5."

The ease of getting around is also important as time spent commuting reduces time spent in the community, Ryan said. In a comment with resonance for local politics, she said forecasts of higher energy prices will make multimodal transportation important if they want people to have more disposable income.

"As we move from winter to spring, this is a sacred moment," she said. "You have a tailwind."

Former Chamber Chairman Eric Godet put out a call for volunteers to serve on task forces. People can sign up at gainesvillechamber.com.

In an interview prior to the forum, Chamber President and CEO Tim Giuliani said the new plan will probably be unveiled at the Chamber's annual meeting in January 2014.

He said it likely will include many of the topics discussed Thursday, including the need to align education with jobs with the Chamber planning to get more involved in education. He said the Chamber also needs to think more regionally and has been meeting with city leaders throughout Alachua County with plans to reach outside the county.

Regarding target industries, Giuliani said the amount of research at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has been an untapped resource for recruiting agribusiness to the area.

While the original plan targeted health and green technologies, many of the successes claimed by Innovation Gainesville show that the Chamber and its partners have already adjusted to emerging opportunities.

Those include the emergence of Innovation Square and information technology companies such as Mobiquity and India-based Mindtree deciding to open offices there.

"The world changes. Global economic forces change," Giuliani said. "New opportunities arise, so you also have to be responsive to the market, and the opportunity we had to onshore jobs that would have been created in India is a huge win and that exact scenario may not have been able to be forecast two or three years in advance."

The collaboration that led to the plan has continued to be useful in bringing together all the players to help recruit new companies.

CurtCo Robb Media, the most recent company to announce it was moving to Innovation Square, echoed Mindtree's announcement in saying that the coordinated effort between the Chamber, UF and local government, among others, was key to its decision.

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