By Bradley Osburn
I think the true representation of Gainesville is an untold story,” said Susan Davenport, the vice president of economic development for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, before lamenting that the city doesn’t market its aesthetic very well.
Sitting in the Chamber’s conference room, she cited a recent article she read that featured a single picture for the city with an old home and two palm trees out front.
“That’s not the story of Gainesville,” she said. “When we tell the story we need to tell people about how beautiful it is,” she said, pointing out the window to a 100-foot stretch of street front covered lined with tall oaks next to brick-paved downtown.
Talking about looks seems inconsequential in the face of other initiatives that aim to bring new industries to the area, but according to Davenport, it’s another key part of attracting talent and business to the area, which she said is a key focus of the Chamber’s economic development efforts.
While Gainesville has remained below the national average for unemployment, there is still 4.8 percent of the population without work, and according to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey Gainesville has the fifth-widest income gap in the country, which former UF economist David Denslow attributed to the size of the city and the lack of jobs in East Gainesville.
Strategic hires like Davenport, who helped transform the development of the Austin, Texas, economy over the last 12 years, and a fundamental realigning behind the second stage of Innovation Gainesville (iG) are just two pieces of the Chamber’s new push for job creation and industry development. The first phase of iG laid the groundwork for growth, she said, but now the city and businesses need to align behind a common goal to make industry development both desirable and a smooth process.
The Chamber’s focus from now on will be on proactive initiatives like the Small Business Growth Task Force, which presented 27 business-friendly suggestions to the city in an open forum. iG’s goal is to mobilize community assets and open a dialogue about how to best leverage those assets. The Chamber wants to take iG to the next level by offering marketing and PR help, forming public policy commissions to help make Gainesville more cost competitive both locally and globally, studying future transportation needs, raising the base of both monetary and professional capital so that the city can provide incentives and guidance, and establishing stronger partnerships with UF and Santa Fe College for training and technology transfer.
In 2014, the Chamber will evolve beyond “Momentum 2015” — which surpassed its job-creation goals in half of its allotted five years — to a new initiative focusing on six key industries which will be announced in 2014, but will likely focus on high-tech manufacturing and health care; two burgeoning industries in the area. Davenport said that the key is focusing on those handful of industries, drilling down into them and recruiting from other areas of the country by going to their headquarters and asking what Gainesville can do for them.
“You have to know where you’re going and be very strategic,” she said. “You have to start ameliorating problems before they happen. Hard work means opportunity. It’s about being prepared on an economic level to be able to grab opportunities. You can’t plan for everything that’s going to come your way.”
A recent example of success in that area is the Chamber’s partnership with the Advanced Manufacturers Association of North Central Florida (AMANCF). After months of studying the state of Gainesville’s manufacturing industry, which employs 2,000 workers, the Chamber held a presentation filled with the kind of information that prospective manufacturers would want to know before moving here, like how to market themselves to the area and what the rates for utilities are going to be like, while also pointing out that they have finished an energy competitiveness report to present to the city in an effort to try to make the city more desirable.
The idea is to have a collective voice and connect to state systems to help remove obstacles and drive job growth across the educational spectrum. The Chamber’s mantra these days is “creating jobs from GED to Ph.D.,” so that nobody is left behind, the quality of life rises in Gainesville and across the county, and the tax base grows over the entire area.
“People want to live in places like that. UF grads should want to live here. There are so many good assets here,” Davenport said. “I talk to colleagues around the country and they’ll say ‘If only we had half of those assets.’ I wouldn’t have left Austin without them.”