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Beach-Blanket Business

Change agents and restless business leaders band together in an effort to revive and rejuvenate their corners of the Sunshine State. This is not your father’s fishing port anymore.

Just ten years ago, the words “Florida” and “community” seldom appeared in the same phrase without a somber “retirement” tucked in the middle. Today, geriatric fraternities alone to do define or comprise the Sunshine State’s community culture. As Florida begins to look beyond its citrus orchards and amusement parks for economic opportunities, new societies of business leaders, inspired workers, and educators are linking arms and blasting through a barricade of old prejudices and practices.

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Formerly defined by its most lucrative resident — Disney World — Orlando, for example, is now trading its mouse ears and Epcot pride for business plans and dreams of a silicon swamp. Recently, an assembly of Orlando business and political leaders visited Austin, Texas, and quickly fell in love with that city’s model of high-tech growth and prosperity. Now, budgets are shifting and Orlando county and city officials are working together to formulate a five-year plan for attracting and retaining tech firms. Meanwhile, the local Chamber of Commerce is also inspiring community action through Workforce 2020, a welfare reform project designed to educate local business leaders about workforce transitions and possibilities. Though Orlando is ranked Number One for economic growth in the state, it is languishing at Number 62 in national comparisons. Local leaders agree that groups like the Downtown Orlando Partnership are needed to manage the region’s projected growth and guarantee a more forward-looking economy.

Likewise, the Tampa Bay region is emerging as a business breeding ground in Florida. Careers in traditional banking, shipbuilding, and heavy manufacturing there are petering out as more locals begin to pursue professions in financial services, medical services, and medical research. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s Committee of One Hundred connects the chamber of commerce with regional employers and the yearly influx of college students from universities and technical colleges in the area.

Still, Florida cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee, and Jacksonville are struggling to develop local business communities that could help boost those regions to greater prosperity in the high-tech, biotech, and knowledge-based industries. While networking channels do exist in many Florida cities, the incentive and vision needed to overhaul those regions is still underdeveloped.

In the following Web feature, coordinators for the Company of Friends cells in Jacksonville, Orlando, South Florida, Tallahassee, and Tampa Bay discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their hometowns, the state’s poor showing on national economic and technological surveys, the value of community in Florida, and the Company of Friends’ role as a grassroots change agent.

Distinguishing Features — How does your region differ economically and socially from other areas of Florida and others parts of the United States?

Numbers Count — Why do you feel Florida is not commonly ranked among the nation’s top business regions? What do you feel can be done to improve the state’s reputation and business atmosphere?

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Come Together — What is the value of “community” in business, and in Florida business circles specifically?

Roots of Change — Is the Company of Friends a source of grassroots change in your region? Why or why not?