Remember those innocent days last summer, when the biggest worry was high gas prices? Florida already felt the pinch as tourism dropped dramatically. Then, as the financial markets collapsed last fall, Florida’s leaders woke up and began talking about diversification. Like deer caught in the crosshairs of a rifle scope, economic boosters darted around looking for new safe places in the knowledge economy, ways to revitalize agriculture, and even exploring private space development to supplement the stuttering NASA program.
But now, having passed through the last quarter, this talk is once more put aside for reliance on tourism again. It appears that the line for Disney’s Space Mountain could be an inverse indicator of the state’s appetite for healthy diversification. As wait time for the ride shortened in October, space programs, research laboratories, and business incubators fell back in the minds of public officials. Today, with lower gas prices, those who still have jobs are coming back to the theme parks, and the relief that state officials feel is audible: no more silly talk about diversification!
Once upon a time, before all the turmoil, NASA had a space program. From afar, one may infer there is an exciting base of science and technology centered around the Kennedy Space Center, with engineering plants and satellite factories and science laboratories. A visit to this area reveals nothing of the sort: sleepy Cocoa, a beach town seemingly lost in time, housing a few small offices scattered around the town labeled Grumman, Boeing, or Lockheed Martin. NASA’s space program in Florida, as it turns out, produces spectacular launches but not much else; the winds of politics on Capitol Hill blow so hot or cold that little sustained investment is possible into this local economy. In 2008, NASA quietly eliminated 4,000 jobs in Central Florida, as the space shuttle program is phased out and replaced with a more efficient vehicle.
Meanwhile, tourism grew and no one noticed.
Once upon a time, before all the freezes, Central Florida had agriculture specializing in citrus. Remember Anita Bryant and the famous Florida Orange? Groves actually extended into southern Georgia a century ago, but citrus farming retreated further and further south as farmers sought less risk from the weather. By the early 1990s, more freezes caused Central Florida farmers to throw in the towel, carrying out with them orange juice processing plants, bottle manufacturers, and shipping and trucking centers. Replacement crops were neither entertained nor encouraged by the State, and the farmers sold their land to developers, who quickly rezoned the land for single family subdivisions. Population grew, and no one noticed.
Once upon a time, East Coast businesses were moving their corporate headquarters to Florida. If anybody remembers John Naisbitt’s 1980 book Megatrends, Orlando was named one of the top ten cities of the future. AAA, the automobile travel association, moved its corporate headquarters to Central Florida, joining Tupperware and several others. It appeared that low taxes and great weather inevitably would lure more companies. It escaped most people’s notice that the other corporations moving here, such as Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (now Harcourt), weren’t moving their leadership, but only back offices and computer hardware to Florida, taking state business incentives and returning the favor with service workers, not executives. As these service workers are downsized due to outsourcing and automation, Florida’s economy has been dramatically affected. Meanwhile the corporate headquarters in New York were protected. The top executives may have maintained condos in Florida, but never took the place seriously for business.
But still tourism was growing, and no one noticed.
Once upon a time, Florida was known as the state of low taxes. No income tax for us, thank you very much, despite a few weak attempts by the legislature. Rather, Florida depends on sales taxes and property taxes to balance its budget, and growth seemed to guarantee that these would rise. But even as low as taxes were, business leaders two years ago pressured the new Governor and legislature to propose a tax cut referendum, and like sheep, the citizens voted yes. Heck, who would not want their taxes cut? Shortly after property taxes were voted lower, the bottom fell out of Florida’s housing market, producing the perfect storm of lower taxes on properties dropping in value. Then, the wise leaders chose to cut necessities like education, rather than luxuries like the purchase of U.S. Sugar’s abandoned properties.
But tourism was growing, and no one seemed to care.
The litany of missed opportunities is longer than the space to list them. To anyone running a business, diversification of sources of income would seem natural to promote the long-term health of your business. But Florida consistently has shown disdain for this sort of behavior, because tourism continues to provide a steady stream of revenue. It is true that historically tourism has risen at the same rate as population growth and there is no reason to doubt that tourism will rebound. So once again, Florida’s reliance on tourism may seem its key to economic survival.
In Central Florida, the economy is tourism, with worldwide visitorship, and compared to its next closest competitor, Las Vegas, Central Florida has come through smelling like a rose. Hotels within Disney’s property quietly finished 2008 on budget, and other hotels surrounding the theme parks suffered only modest losses. New hotel starts are halted, and owners with cash are not seeking expansion, renovation, nor repositioning while occupancy is down.
Meanwhile, digital media and medical research remain the two most viable diversification channels for Central Florida. Partnerships between the private sector and the University of Central Florida to create a digital media development center will bear fruit in the coming years, both on campus and in downtown Orlando. Growth in medical research is already happening with the arrival of the Nemours Center for Pediatric Research. Both of these are happening because of internal decisions, windows of opportunity, and with mostly private, not government, help. On the downside, space investment dwindles, agriculture divestiture continues, and the State sits idly by, dreaming dreams of legalized gaming so as to put even more eggs into tourism’s basket.
These are excellent times for diversifying the state’s economy. Tourism breeds not just an epehemeral city, but an ephemeral state – and the risk of this position is felt every day as jobs get scarcer and scarcer. Florida’s business leaders need to take responsibility for the future of the state, stop their addiction to tourism, and seek higher and safer ground. Only with a diversified economy will the State of Florida have long-term prospects for a prosperous future.
So come on back, everyone, and get in line for rides at Disney! Those of us living and working in Central Florida thank you for coming. And, while you are here, pat yourselves on the back for helping Florida postpone its inevitable reckoning with economic reality.
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.