Hawks and doves disagree on whether World War II ended the Great Depression. Depending on which species of bird squawks louder, military spending may be the only way out of our current financial malaise. In many ways it is already happening, although it is a surreptitious and quiet influence felt mostly in the high-tech economic sector. Defense growth in one of the most unlikely places – Orlando, Florida – has already begun to diversify the region’s income stream, create a new urban corner of Central Florida, and tap into some of the natural allies and partners that already exist here. Mickey Mouse is now sharing Orlando with Uncle Sam as the militarization of the local economy increases.
America’s current rough patch, as Dr. Roger Siebert recently wrote about , seems to be deeper than any in recent memory, and recalls the 1930s. During that time, isolationism was only cured by a slap in the face: Pearl Harbor. Today’s isolationism, so vigorously voiced in the calls to depart Afghanistan, seems to echo that period. Enlistment in the military isn’t exactly vigorous, and intervention in troubled regions is not on the radar screen of even the most ardent hawk. America seems too self-involved at the moment to care.
Yet at this very same time, Pentagon spending is quietly rising in the modeling, simulation, and training fields. Already employing 53,000 Floridians, 9,000 more than the state’s hallowed agriculture industry, this growth sector is hugely dependent upon a high-skilled, high-wage workforce. The ability to train soldiers, sailors, and pilots without the expense of actual bombs and equipment has clearly demonstrated its benefits to the satisfaction of the military brass, making it inevitable that more is to come.
Co-located next to Florida’s premier high-tech medical research park, Lake Nona, the National Simulation Center is the most common name used to describe the efforts underway at the Central Florida Research Park on the east side of town. More importantly, however, the Center is adjacent to the University of Central Florida. Already the second largest university in the country, UCF is home to much of this Center’s local 18,000 workforce. With Navy, Air Force, and Marines research and training, the Simulation Center has quietly become the world’s largest military simulator .
Regionally, it leverages its old Naval Training Center roots and proximity to NASA facilities at Cape Canaveral to capture workers, skill sets, and continuous research and improvement. While the town struggles with slumping tourism and anemic population growth, the high-tech military industry is rapidly taking over as one of the biggest new economies to hit Florida.
Spinoffs from military research can only benefit Central Florida’s attractions and rides, as future tourists will be able to experience more and more virtual thrills in addition to more traditional meatspace rides and shows. In the meantime, it remains a quiet partner in diversifying the economy.
In the 1990s, the Naval Training Center left Orlando, ostensibly because it duplicated facilities that the Navy had elsewhere. Its developable land, close to downtown Orlando, became Baldwin Park, and the old barracks, classrooms, and laboratories were quickly bulldozed for lucrative residential real estate. Few were aware that the functions of the Orlando Naval Training Center were downsized, not eliminated, and were quietly relocated to the east side of town.
The Training Center evolved into the National Simulation Center. As a research-intensive industry, it capitalized on its new proximity to the University of Central Florida’s campus, and began an interchange with the engineering and computer science programs at that school. UCF, today with over 50,000 students, has quickly grown to become the nation’s second largest university, just behind Ohio State. UCF’s own Research Park has grown to rival the fabled Research Triangle in North Carolina, due to the synergy between military and higher education.
Its new location also moved the Training Center a little bit closer to the Kennedy Space Center as well. The Navy has always had a presence at Cape Canaveral, and with the employee base around the Space Center available less than an hour’s commute away, the Training Center has already benefitted from the availability of this highly skilled workforce who has suffered from the ebb and flow of NASA’s political fortunes.
Medical research being conducted by Scripps, Burnham, and Nemours will also benefit from this activity, as they are all building new facilities at Lake Nona. This medical research campus will employ many with the same skills, education, and training as the Simulation Center, and provide choices for the scientists and engineers living in Lake Nona’s suburbs. This makes the residential real estate around Lake Nona a bright spot in Central Florida’s otherwise horrendous housing market .
Surrounding the Simulation Center, small companies have already started feeding creativity and innovation into the giant maw of the military, and spinoffs – commercialization of its technology – have also benefitted larger companies such as Orlando’s game design team at Electronic Arts and the military contractor Lockheed Martin. This supply chain, once established in Orlando, gives localized sustainability to this industry and suggests that it has achieved a foothold among the tourism, agriculture, and growth industries firmly established in Central Florida.
Geographically, East Orlando is difficult to develop. Like the surface of swiss cheese, land above the flood plain, traditionally agricultural, is interlaced with wetlands and lakes, and it has been historically ignored for the broad swaths of low-hanging fruit closer to the theme parks and population centers on the west side of town. Pressure to develop, however, has suddenly put this area in the spotlight, and controversial proposals by homebuilders and other owners have raised questions about whether Florida should stay on its historic pathway of man vs. nature. Infrastructure – roads, utilities, and other unglamorous investment – still doesn’t exist in much of East Orlando. Because development has historically been in small pockets fragmented by the area’s mosaic of wetlands, connectivity and sheer mass will be difficult to achieve without great cost to the environment.
Yet this does not have to be so. Dense development can happen with respect to nature, as proven by countries such as Germany and Sweden . If left to the same old forces that developed the rest of Florida, it is unlikely that East Orlando will experience any innovation regarding development strategy, and Central Florida will host the same old battles of environmentalists vs. developers again and again. The state’s growth strategy – leaving it up to private interests – may have already guaranteed this outcome.
If, however, innovation transcends the research mission and influences the style of development to support this research, then the military and medical centers in East Orlando have a chance to provide a true, new pathway to the future. Like Victor Gruen’s 1963 concept for Valencia, which recognized such modern aspects of society such as the car, East Orlando could be planned as an employment-based community within the context of nature using contemporary science and technology. Orlando, the ephemeral city home to amusement parks and orange groves, could become a model for development to influence other areas struggling with the same questions.
Militarization of the economy may become a vehicle for true change. The cluster of military agencies and private businesses, headed by Lockheed Martin, all revolve around this economy and provide a badly-needed shot in the arm of Orlando’s workforce. With high-salary, highly educated workers, global connectivity, and a growth engine no less than the Department of Defense, Orlando can be assured of some good times ahead while the tourism and housing sectors recover. The region’s leadership must think carefully how to embrace this new savior, and what the greater implications are for the future.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.