ORLANDO - There are so many ambitious plans for the revitalization of Orlando's downtown that if all the plans come to fruition, it could become a strong economic engine that drives the rest of Central Florida, Four Corners included, into job growth overdrive.

"There's a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but we're thinking 10 years ahead," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. "We're thinking what it will look like 10 years from now."

"I think we are on a wave of great success," said Moses Salcido, president of the Central Florida chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.

Last week, NAIOP held a luncheon at the Orlando Sheraton. The program was called "City of Orlando Economic Development Update." Dyer and three members of his economic development team used the event to outline their very ambitious plans for the City Beautiful.

"We've had a great couple of years in the city of Orlando," Dyer said. "I think this is the most dynamic time in our city's history. I think we are on a wave of great success."



FOUR CORNERS BENEFITS?

Marc Reicher, the former chairman of the Four Corners Area Council, noted that with Central Florida's expanding transportation network, any community with relatively easy access to downtown Orlando stands to benefit from the city's growth and high tech expansion.

"Florida is a state that's built on a transportation infrastructure that's vehicular," he said. "Anything on the main lines to Orlando will continue to benefit. If there's access, and there's land that is zoned and ready to be developed, it has an opportunity of attracting high-tech growth.

"The whole area will continue to boom and continue to have opportunities," he added. "Some of the Polk County areas, and the (U.S.) 27 corridor, have every opportunity to take advantage of that."



THE CHANGING FACE OF DOWNTOWN

As Reicher noted, downtown Orlando has traditionally been a center for banking and law offices. But as Dyer noted, the downtown is experiencing $3 billion worth of construction. The plans include building of a performing arts center across from City Hall, the creation of an events center, and renovations to the Citrus Bowl. Existing institutions like the Mall of Millennia and Florida Hospital continue to grow, and even more critical is the selection by Burnham Institute for Medical Research of Orlando's Lake Nona as the location for its East Coast research facility.

Lake Nona is a 7,000-acre, master-planned community close to Orlando International Airport that is expected to have more than 9,000 residences, and 6.5 million square feet of retail, life science and commercial space.

Lake Nona is also slated to host the University of Central Florida's College of Medicine and a new Veterans Administration hospital, in addition to Burnham.

"It's truly going to be a medical city," Dyer said. "That's really going to transform this economy. These are good deals for the city of Orlando."

"The most significant deal done was Burnham Institute," Reicher agreed. "That's big dollars and medical research, and a golden opportunity for that part of Central Florida. That was one of the smartest deals Florida was able to grab up."

"There is a lot going on in our city," said Frank Billingsley, Orlando's director of economic development. "We've seen more changes in the last four years than most of us have seen in a lifetime."

HIGH TECH IN CREATIVE VILLAGE

Brooke Bonnet, the city's deputy economic development director, said the plans include building the Downtown Orlando Creative Village. It will be the redevelopment of 53 acres at the CentroPlex and Bob Carr Performing Arts Center, and it will become host to the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy and an office by House of Moves.

"They are locating their East Coast headquarters to the village," Bonnet said. "This is a company popular with movie producers and anyone who does commercials. They used to go to California or Vancouver before."

Although she noted, "Large employers will be a major part of the Creative Village," Bonnet added that the project will likely have a lot of spin-off job creation for small firms.

"Ninety percent of our businesses employ 24 people or less,' she said. "Small business is truly the backbone of our economy."

Thomas Chatmon, executive director of Orlando's Downtown Development Board, recently moved from Atlanta to Orlando to take his new post. Chatmon said he did so because of the city's very promising future.

"I came to Orlando because I was so impressed with where we are now with a downtown going through a resurgence," he said. "The best indicator of how solid the market is is that you have locals who keep reinvesting in it. Downtown is continuing to lead the way and drive the train of economic development. It's a very exciting time. This will set the city of Orlando apart from cities around the world."



PROPERTY TAXES, HOUSING WOes

There are still some challenges for Orlando, among them concerns about the impact that the Legislature's plans for property tax reform will have on the city's revenue stream.

This year, state lawmakers have tried to address growing concerns among constituents about Florida's sharply rising property tax rates. The Florida House of Representatives considered eliminating most property taxes and replacing those revenues with an increase in the sales tax, while the state Senate proposed rolling back property tax rates to the lower levels before the real estate boom of 2003-2006 caused housing prices to skyrocket. Lawmakers eventually stalemated and failed to reach an agreement. Gov. Charlie Crist has called a special session in June to address the issue.

As Dyer noted, local communities are worried about the loss of property-tax revenue that cities count on, and the impact that would have on some of these high-end projects.

"We're waiting to see what the Legislature will do on property taxes, which will have some effect on all this," Dyer said.

State Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, whose district includes the Lake, Orange and Osceola County sections of Four Corners, said lawmakers are in overtime trying to come up with a tax-reduction package before the special session begins June 12.

"We're waiting to go into special session on property-tax reform and we are focused on the homestead properties and giving them relief," Precourt said of the state's homestead exemption, which exempts the first $25,000 of a person's primary residence.

"When we go back into session on June 12, the work will be done by then, but it's not real clear now what we'll do," Precourt added. "We discarded the sales tax (hike) for now, but it may come back."

Precourt also urged residents and business owners to contact their state lawmakers and let them know what they want from the tax-reduction package.

"Right now, we're focused on homestead relief," he said. "Give us your feedback so we can try to come up with something that makes people happy."

Another challenge is one plaguing most of Central Florida: fast-rising home prices that are making affordable housing difficult, if not impossible, for many workers like those in professional fields - teaching, public safety and nursing/medicine.

Dyer appointed an affordable housing task force to explore ways to deal with the challenge.

"That work is continuing," Chatmon said. "There are no new ordinances yet as a result of their work, but I expect there will be."

Chatmon said the city was trying to encourage development that doesn't just provide high-end housing, but a mix for all income levels.

"Right now, if you wanted to develop an all-market (high cost) condo or apartment house in downtown, we couldn't help you much with that," he said. But if the projects included an affordable-housing component that would be a different matter," he said.



THE ORLANDO-TO-TAMPA CORRIDOR

But so far, the concerns haven't dampened enthusiasm for what's in the pipeline.

"I'm sure Buddy Dyer has a lot of great plans for downtown Orlando," Reicher said, adding that the entire region between Orlando and Tampa stands to benefit from those efforts.

"I still think the vision of Orlampa is the true vision people have when they talk about a planning vision," he said. "The stronger downtown Orlando gets, it creates further opportunities for people to come here. The community is doing a lot of right things."