Central Florida might be known as Mickey’s hometown, but there’s more than tourism that bolsters Orange County’s economy.
Long before tourism became the economic powerhouse of Orlando, the area was known for its booming technology industry.
“If we weren’t the epicenter for tourism, we’d be known as a strong tech market,” said Jennifer Wakefield, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Orlando Economic Development Commission.
For several years, the industry has been on an upward swing, Wakefield said - a trend that is expected to continue into 2017.
Orlando’s technology roots began in the 1950s as the space race was becoming a prominent part of American culture. As the Space Coast became more established, neighboring Orlando became an attractive location for companies invested in the aviation and aerospace industry. Eventually businesses, like Martin-Marietta (now Lockheed Martin), set up shop in and around Orlando, which triggered the start of Orange County’s tech industry.
Since those early beginnings, the technology industry has evolved into a $13 billion market, and it’s still growing.
“The environment we have in downtown, it’s really working quite well,” said Gordon Hogan, director of the University of Central Florida’s Business Incubation Program. “It’s something that’s coming up and will be around for a while. It’s similar to the kinds of things that happened in Silicon Valley maybe 20 years ago.”
According to a report from the Orlando Economic Development Commission, an estimated 7 percent of the 1.2 million people working in and around Orlando are working in tech. That’s an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 jobs.
The market itself is broken into three different categories: technology jobs in technology industries, technology jobs in non-technology industries and non-technology jobs in technology industries. Currently, the majority of the jobs are in non-tech industries, and two of the largest industries within the tech economy are military and medical, Wakefield said.
According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the Florida Hospital, Lockheed Martin and the Hospital Corporation of America were the top three employers in the tech industry in November 2016 based on the number of jobs they posted that month - a combined total of more than 800 jobs.
While the industry itself encompasses a wide variety of jobs and businesses, much of the industry can be found in clusters along the Interstate 4 corridor, Wakefield said.
“There’s obviously a lot that goes through there,” she said. “Siemens is across street from UCF along with Lockheed Martin. There are pieces and parts scattered up and down I-4 with medical clustering downtown.”
But the area of UCF seems to pull some of the largest business.
“A lot of it takes place in Central Florida Research Park,” Wakefield said. “About 4 billion in contracting that flows through that region each year.”
In addition to the businesses that fill out the tech market, Orlando has become a home to one of the largest tech meet-ups in the country, Wakefield said.
But it’s not just these big-name businesses that are driving the tech industry in Orange County.
Start-ups have found a home downtown as well, Hogan said.
As a new major influence to the local tech industry, start-ups can be found in incubator settings and co-working environments, Hogan said.
Incubators set up near UCF provide inventors and potential businesses the chance to give life to a dream.
“You have an environment that allows developments on new products based on technology, usually university researchers are involved, and they need lab space needed to build their product and sell it,” he said. “So they’re looking for incubators.”
But an even larger part of the start-up tech industry are the web-based companies that Hogan has noticed popping up all across downtown Orlando.
Many of these people are participating in co-working environments, Hogan said, which allows them to rent desk space and internet access in an office building, an ideal setting for anyone who telecommutes.
“I’ve been pretty impressed with the stuff going on downtown,” Hogan said. “It’s pretty amazing. They’re going down there and getting to know other tech types and getting advice. At (these co-working places), they can work for a while, hook up with someone and do business together. It’s really working quite well.”
One of the more popular web-based start-ups in these environments are applications for phones and tablets.
“A computer person can develop an app in not too long,” Hogan said. “You can develop an app and you know in a matter of a year if it’s going to make you any money or not.”
WEST ORANGE COUNTY
While much of the tech industry is based around UCF and the I-4 corridor, Hogan suggested that West Orange County is playing a supporting role in this industry’s success.
The massive growth that West Orange County has seen in the last several years, coupled with its continuing growth, has provided employees of the tech industry a place to call home, Hogan said.
Even though the bulk of the industry is currently located in Orlando, a trickle effect could eventually bring business into the city’s outskirts.
“You’re not going to find many (tech businesses) in places like Winter Garden right now,” Hogan said. “But down the road, maybe. The community would benefit from it, I’m sure. And the real advantage of having it out there would be that (employees) could live and work there. Wouldn’t it be nice if you were only 15 minutes away instead of driving in the downtown traffic?”
And the growth of downtown Winter Garden and planned development of Ocoee both hold potential for industry expansion, he said.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said of the growth in West Orange County. “It’s been steadily growing for quite a while, and I’ve been pretty impressed with it.”
Although the tech industry is on an upswing right now, and will likely continue to grow for the foreseeable future, Hogan said it will probably always play second fiddle to the tourism industry.
“It’s not going to be huge,” he said. “But it’s going to be pretty important.”
Contact Brittany Gaines at [email protected].