Several years ago, in kinder and gentler times, before 9/11 and the advent of the dot-com bubble, Ocala business and community leaders involved in the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) defined the fundamental issues that determine wealth or prosperity in our local economy. They also correctly identified the common denominators that successful American communities with vibrant economies use to maintain and enhance their quality of life. Worried about what would later be labeled as a “soft landing” recession, our leaders debated a basic question: “What can we do as a community to further diversify our economy and insulate it from a downturn?”
Fast forward a decade. Obviously, the Great Recession has punished businesses, employees, families, and communities all across the nation. In late 2009, a statewide Rasmussen survey of 1,000 Florida residents overwhelmingly indicated that the economy is still the most pressing issue facing our state. Widespread unemployment is the single biggest threat to our economy and ultimately Marion County’s quality of life.
In fact, with almost 18,000 Marion County residents out of work and average earnings of $31,000 a year, roughly $560 million in spending power is gone from our $6.6 billion economy (or gross metro product). No wonder this one factor is considered such a threat! However, you have to ask the question, “Where are those successful cities with vibrant economies?”
The answer may partially lie in Kiplinger’s Best Cities for 2010 annual study. While there are the usual powerhouse cities you would take for granted such as Austin and Seattle, there were some surprises: Salt Lake City, Des Moines, Burlington, and Topeka. It should also come as no surprise that no Florida cities landed in the top 10.
What intriguing factors connected these diverse economic hot-spots?
• heavy emphasis on civic collaboration
• entrepreneurship and innovation (not necessarily hi-tech)
• talented people with an active appreciation for education
• competitive business costs and taxes
• a serious commitment to nurturing companies with emerging technologies, especially alternative energies
• the all-important and immeasurable quality of “coolness”
As we consider the attributes of the above-mentioned cities and compare them to our hometown, I’m proud to be a part of the economic recovery and renaissance that’s slowly and methodically occurring in Ocala/Marion County.
Active partnerships with the public and private sector are putting people back to work by attracting, retaining, and expanding companies. With unemployment dropping to 13.6 percent, I want to believe this is the beginning of the recovery process. Elected officials and business leaders are now working together to improve our competitiveness, reduce costs, and cut red tape for all types of businesses.There is also a faint whisper of new jobs being created as well as new construction, however modest.
Our downtown is growing, authentic, and evolving into cool. Houses are affordable and beginning to sell. While budgets are exceedingly tight, government services are consistently being provided. The City of Ocala and Marion County are making the necessary investments in our infrastructure, road networks, and business parks. We have an economic element to our comprehensive land-use plan and a four-year College of Central Florida!
Make no mistake—there is still a lot of pain, uncertainty, and weakness in our economic environment. Years of hard work are ahead of us. But Marion County’s leaders are ready—and willing—to tackle the job.