Heart of Florida at crossroads

“We’ve been at this thing seven or eight years now. It’s fish or cut bait time.”

With those words Brent Christensen, the president and CEO of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, summarized the mood at this year’s annual Heart of Florida Summit.

The event, which brought together business, government and education leaders from Alachua, Marion and Bradford counties, focused on ways the counties can work more effectively as a region to spur economic growth. And it was clear that the time for planning is running short.

Shelly Lautten, president of myregion.org, a strong coalition representing Central Florida, said there are nine major economic regions in the state and all but two have strategic visions to direct how they’ll develop. North Central Florida is one of the two that doesn’t, she said, adding that if this area doesn’t act, it risks being co-opted by surrounding regions when major decisions are made on economic development.

Ron Barnwell, executive director of the Heart of Florida Coalition, agreed. “All around us we find strong regional structures with strong strategies to move those regions forward,” he said. “The core question is, ‘Will we take control of our future before it’s determined for us?’”

Lautten said it takes significant planning to create a regional vision that will be widely accepted by residents and leaders. Myregion.org started its process in 1999 and is now in phase three of implementation. Along the way it has held hundreds of community meetings and engaged more than 20,000 people to gather opinions and seek buy-in for regional growth.

Barnwell said the Heart of Florida Coalition needs to take a similar approach to rally broad support. “This can’t just be the chambers and government. The civic, public and private sectors have to lead and tell us, ‘This is what we want, this is how we’ll craft it, and this is how we’ll fund it,’” he said.

Following the summit, the Heart of Florida’s Executive Committee voted to appoint a task force to start the process of developing a regional plan, Barnwell said. The job could take 12 to 18 months.

Barnewell stressed that “becoming a strong region does not mean giving up the uniqueness of each community. It’s about collaborating where it makes sense.”

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