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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jun. 9, 2021 6 days ago

Demings address sheds positive light on county

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Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings shared accomplishments and challenges faced by local government, residents, businesses and community partners over the past year.
by: Amy Quesinberry Community Editor

“As of today, we are no longer under a local state of emergency,” Mayor Jerry L. Demings said in his third State of Orange County address — a comment that was met with cheers from the audience. After 15 months, the state-of-emergency order was lifted Friday, June 4.

Demings presented his 2021 speech at the Orange County Convention Center, a place that, for the last year, has been the site of COVID-19 testing and, later, vaccinations.

“The past year has been difficult for all of us due to a once-in-a-century pandemic,” he said. “But the story does not end there.”

According to the Florida Department of Health, the state has maintained 15 straight days with a COVID-19 positivity rate of 5% or lower.

“This means we will transition to Phase 3, where all Orange County mandates are lifted,” Demings said. “We are back on course for destination greatness. We persevered through tough times. We are indeed safer, stronger together.”

In his address, the mayor highlighted the challenges the county faced during the global pandemic but also focused on looking toward the future and building a community that works for everyone.

While unemployment peaked at 22.6%, it now is down to 5.6%, Demings said. Air passenger traffic at Orlando International Airport, which plummeted by 97% in March and April 2020, has been one of the top five businesses airports in the nation in recent months. In 2019, Orange County saw 75 million visitors; a year later, there were 35 million, with hotel closures and massive layoffs — but 2021 numbers are promising, he said.

By rethinking budget priorities, Orange County Government is maintaining long-term financial health. Fitch Ratings ranked the County with its highest credit rating – a AAA designation.

“Our fiscal health is good, and our bond ratings are as strong as ever,” Demings said.

He praised Central Florida’s largest theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld — for continuing their expansion projects, which would result in thousands of additional permanent jobs in the area.

“I am confident these theme park expansions … will provide a huge boost to our local community,” Demings said.

More than 90% of Orange County’s $243 million of federal CARES Act funds was given to residents, including $69 million for small and home-based businesses, $67 million for individuals and families, $11 million for social-service agencies, $8 million for emergency food assistance and $7 million for job-training programs.

Additionally, the county distributed more than 25 million face masks and 1 million bottles of hand sanitizer throughout the community. Orange was one of the first counties in Central Florida to distribute free PPE, Demings said.

A number of large companies, including KPMG and Amazon, have embarked on major expansions, which will assist in economic recovery. White Castle recently opened its largest freestanding restaurant in Horizon West.

The county established the first Housing Trust Fund to invest $10 million annually in public-private partnerships focused on the development of affordable and workforce housing. Additionally, the county launched its Industry Diversification Cluster Initiative as part of its economic stimulus strategy to spur job creation in industry sectors beyond tourism and hospitality.

Throughout the pandemic, Orange County continued to focus on promoting diversity, inclusion and equity. The county’s Martin Luther King Jr. Initiative provided year-round programing focused on social reform, personal and financial health, literacy and volunteerism. Additionally, more than $3 million was allocated to 32 local arts organizations — including large and small theaters, as well as music and dance companies — to help safely reopen performance stages and welcome back guests.

Demings said the county held about 135 COVID-19 conference to keep the community informed of the pandemic and the latest measures taken by the state and county.

With the county opening back up comes the opportunity for higher revenues for the last half of the year. In the third quarter, the Orange County Convention Center has booked 84 shows with 930,000 attendees and more than 1.3 million in hotel room nights.

The county’s rapid deployment of COVID-19 tests and vaccinations was made possible by nurturing numerous community partnerships. It also was one of the first counties in the state to lower the COVID-19 vaccine age requirement in response to demand, as well as create a mobile vaccination program for underserved communities. In addition, the county arranged for homebound residents in vulnerable community to receive vaccinations at their homes.

At this time, nearly 60% of the eligible population in the county has been vaccinated, he said.

In response to the hard work of county employees, Orange County has received seven national achievement awards.

“I could not ask for a better team to meet today’s challenges and the opportunities ahead of us,” Demings said. “We are paving a path for improvement in our economy and community.”

I want you to know that Orange County’s future is bright,” he said. “We will continue to embrace diversity, … continue to fight for affordable housing, … continue to embrace collaboration … and continue to lift up local businesses. … We are Orange County Strong.”

Amy Quesinberry is the community editor of the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She was born and raised in Winter Garden, grew up reading the community newspaper and has been employed there as a writer, photographer and editor since 1990....

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