Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings delivered his fifth State of the County address Friday, June 9, at the Orange County Convention Center.
The mayor highlighted last year’s accomplishments and discussed the future of the county through this year’s theme — “Taking It To The Next Level.”
Demings touched on an array of topics, including tourism and hospitality; economic development and business; education; affordable housing; environment; community; public safety; and arts and entertainment.
“This has been a year of significant achievements, record-breaking tourism numbers and strong economic growth,” Demings said. “It has also been a year of triumphs, hardships and challenges that only Mother Nature could deliver.”
More than 50% of the state’s population lives in only seven counties; one of them being Orange County.
Orange County is the fifth most-populated county in Florida and now exceeds 1.5 million residents.
Demings said the economy has come back strong and the county is thriving.
“The county boasts healthy reserves and outstanding bond ratings,” he said. “We continue to receive Fitch’s highest triple-A rating across the board, and this has not changed for many years. Economists predict a mild recession is anticipated sometime in the next 12 months, but our healthy financial reserves will help us navigate the turbulent times and weather the storms ahead.”
One of the first topics Demings addressed was the impact of Hurricane Ian — one of the most powerful storms to hit Florida in decades.
“It was recorded as a 500-year flood, which struck our community and left thousands without power or livable homes,” he said. “Many residents were affected by the floods, and some remain in alternative housing eight months later.”
Demings said the county truly came together in a time of need, with the Orange County Fire Rescue teams visiting vulnerable communities such as 80 mobile homes and more than 100 nursing homes, and public works crews checking stormwater infrastructure and ponds. In addition, about 1,600 evacuees housed in a safe place at local schools converted into shelters and emergency personnel and equipment were staged at the convention center.
During the storm, OCFR teams rescued 1,700 residents and their pets.
Centers opened to provide refuge to those whose homes were damaged, Federal Emergency Management Agency teams assessed affected areas to assist with disaster claims, the county worked with the Florida Department of Children and Families to set up food-assistance programs, the public works department coordinated with the South Florida Water Management District to discharge flood waters, and debris removal teams collected almost 8,000 truckloads of debris.
The county’s response also included community outreach, communications and a strong partnership with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Orange County was provided with $243 million in federal funding to help meet the needs of the community from HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge and FEMA.
Demings said a portion of the awarded funding will be used to help fill a gap for people experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness.
Almost 60% of renters in Florida are cost-burdened — meaning they spend more than 30% of their household income on rent — and 71% of the state’s low-income renters also are cost-burdened.
“We have aggressively addressed individuals and families at risk of being evicted through the Federal American Rescue Plan Act funding,” Demings said. “To date, $40 million has kept more than 15,000 individuals in their homes through Orange County’s Emergency Rental Assistance program.”
The county developed the Housing for All Action Plan and created the first Housing Trust Fund with a $160 million commitment in 2019.
Since 2019, more than 2,000 affordable housing units have been built or are under development.
This year, the county also opened the Office of Tenant Services and has already assisted 1,200 tenants and landlords.
Over the last couple of years, Demings said the county has seen the tourism and hospitality industry make a strong comeback.
He said the theme parks have even been doing their part to increase workforce housing.
Universal Orlando Resort is building 1,000 high-quality, affordable and mixed-income housing units on 20 acres of land in the heart of the tourist corridor, and Walt Disney World has brought on a developer to build more than 1,300 high-quality, workforce housing units on 80 acres of designated land.
“Thanks to the attractions, hotels, restaurants, sporting venues, arts and other amenities, we are the No. 1 tourist destination in the world,” Demings said. “We are thrilled that 74 million visitors came to Orange County in 2022. …Our spectacular theme parks and numerous attractions in Orange County are committed to creating transformational experiences for our visitors and residents.”
Demings noted Disney’s new roller coaster, the TRON Lightcycle Run Roller Coaster, already is one of the most popular rides at the theme park. EPIC Universe, the newest park planned for Universal Orlando, is set to open in 2025 as the largest park to be built by Universal Orlando. SeaWorld also just launched its new standing roller coaster — Pipeline.
The convention center has hosted more than 80 events including three — the PGA Show, Open Championship Cheer and Dance, and MegaCon — which alone netted $364 million in economic impact.
The center is on track to reach 159 events and generate $2.8 billion in economic impact.
TRANSPORTATION & TECHNOLOGY
The Transportation Sales Tax Referendum on the November ballot did not pass, so Demings said the county is continuing to explore funding options to improve the transportation system.
“We will soon announce an interim plan to incrementally move us forward toward improving our transportation system and making our roadways safer,” he said. “In the meantime, Vision Zero is part of our long-range efforts to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety.”
The County Commission voted to adopt Vision Zero in August, a strategy to design safer roads to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries.
In 2022, the county invested $7.3 million in ADA-compliant sidewalk ramps and pedestrian-related safety improvements. Terminal C, which will accommodate an additional 10 million to 12 million passengers annually, opened at the Orlando International Airport, and Brightline’s Passenger Rail Station was unveiled.
“Improved transportation options allow Orange County to move the needle and expand the number of technology companies and related jobs,” Demings said.
Orange County is set to soon launch its Center for Innovation, Design and Inclusion focused on tackling community issues and the new Orlando College of Osteopathic Medicine — a $200 million investment in West Orange County — will open come 2024.
The county created the Green PLACE program to preserve, enhance and restore environmentally sensitive lands nearly three decades ago.
“Every day, we make a choice that can impact our environment and God’s green Earth,” Demings said. “We remain committed to this program and plan to preserve an additional 23,000 acres by 2030. … The need to preserve green space and provide residents with areas to enjoy nature is fundamental to a growing and sustainable community.”
The county opened the Hamlin Water Reclamation Facility — the first to open in 30 years — which will serve 40,000 residents and expand the use of reclaimed-water infrastructure.
This year has also brought on a record number of park openings for the county, including the Magnolia Park Eco Education Building and the skate park at Barnett Park, as well as groundbreakings for Summerlake Park, Tabor Field Park and the Dr. Phillips Little League Complex.
Demings said he is proud of the men and women who risk their lives to ensure the safety of the community.
A new 30,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art training facility will break ground this summer and open late 2024. The facility is equipped with classrooms, apparatus bays, a simulation lab, a three-story burn building and two five-story drill towers.
To serve the rapidly growing Horizon West community, the county also opened Fire Station 44.
The county reconvened the Citizens Safety Task Force and has committed $2 million for prevention and intervention initiatives with most of it awarded to small, grassroots nonprofit organizations.