Is Gainesville Normal?

I’ve been with Broad Beach Media for five years, and in this time, I’ve witnessed the real estate crash, the subsequent faltering economy—and the admirable and inspiring resurgence of hope in Gainesville.

It got me thinking: Is this accelerated energy for technology and entrepreneurship we’re experiencing normal? Is this unmistakable sense of potential and momentum something that similar communities are experiencing as they recover from our generation’s version of the Great Depression?

I asked our own senior writer, Chris Eversole, who had lived in Sarasota and Columbus, Ohio, before moving to Gainesville 17 years ago. In his role reporting from the trenches, he has witnessed what initiatives like Innovation Gainesville have accomplished. And no, he assured me, this isn’t normal.

Then I turned to a few people in our community who have lived in vastly different areas, both in the U.S. and overseas. Among them was Alachua County economic development coordinator Edgar Campa-Palafox (who moved here recently from Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Tex.) and David Whitney, entrepreneur in residence in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering and the managing director of Energent Ventures, a local investor in startup companies. (Whitney comes to Gainesville by way of Silicon Valley and Dubai.)

Overall, they assure me that no, it’s not completely normal. Our community enjoys an unusual degree of collaboration, both between local companies and between the university and the city. (Interestingly, this was also a major theme in the nonprofit sector, as we found in our story on giving in Gainesville, page 20.)

Here’s just an excerpt of what Campa-Palafox and Whitney had to say about the future of Gainesville and challenges we might face as we put Gainesville firmly on the map:

1. Gainesville is still largely unrecognized. Both suggest that while they were lucky in coming to a town with so much enthusiasm for starting a business, the national perspective—the “Gainesville brand,” if you will—still has potential for growth. Campa-Palafox does note that the solar feed-in tariff was a step in the right direction to national recognition. Whitney “got lucky,” he says, in moving to an area that was such a hotbed of activity, and he hasn’t been let down for a second. Still, how can we expand that message?

2. We’re a small market. Despite future potential, we are still a small town, so failures and economic uncertainties make a big impact. We’d be wise to not rely on one industry or company, so that the resulting stability will attract more people and more companies. But for now, our size can work to our advantage; it makes us “quicker and meaner” in that we can shift gears faster—plus, leaders are more accessible, as Campa-Palafox notes. And when some of us do fail, will we learn? As Whitney suggests, Gainesville’s rallying cry should be, “Fail early, fail cheaply.”

3. We need more investor capital—and more large companies. Recent local success stories (see our cover) are hopeful signs that we can attract investor capital, but we need more, and more types, from small loans to major infusions, Whitney says. Attracting this isn’t easy, but convincing larger companies to set up shop here will translate into more success for our smaller companies, as they tend to attract the investors.

4. Don’t get caught up in the hype. Gainesville is a great place to start and run a business. But, Whitney warns, rather than trying to become “the next Silicon Valley,” we should work on being “the first Gainesville.” Our unique equation of collaboration and university resources, combined with hard work, promises a future that is “solidly bright,” Whitney says.

Ultimately, let’s remember to enjoy the journey of mapping the future of Gainesville. And, if that means that Gainesville’s on the map this fall mainly because of our football team, I’ll still be thrilled.

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew Tatum

    I agree in that Gainesville should stop trying to be the next “Silicon Valley” or, heck, even Austin, TX. Don’t get me wrong, I love Gainesville, but we’ve still got a tremendous amount of growth to do. The biggest thing is that Gainesville is still viewed as a college/football town first and foremost (at least to “outsiders”). If someone is visiting Florida and is driving through Gainesville to get to Orlando, Tampa, or Miami what is there to make them feel compelled to stop in Gainesville (if they’re not a UF fan)? On the other hand, people do go out of their way to visit Austin. Perhaps the people that go out of their way to visit Austin is because they’ve heard about it by reading up on SWSX or something… either way… Austin is a national “brand” while Gainesville is still very much limited to the South East US.

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