A Melting Pot of Innovation

City of Gainesville and Alachua County, FL

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Located in north central Florida, the city of Gainesville (population: 127,000) is the entertainment, employment and economic hub of Alachua County (population: 160,000) and home of Gator Nation – the affectionate name of University of Florida’s flagship campus.
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Gainesville is one of the most creative, innovative communities in the country. Its setting, incredible quality of life, and real potential are taking centre stage in tomorrow’s economy while finding solutions for some of today’s biggest problems.

Gainesville and Alachua County do not have the typical look and feel one would expect from Florida and are very different from the many beach cities found in the state. “We think it’s stunning,” says Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Susan Davenport. “It has a unique and beautiful terrain of tree canopy – lush and green – flowers and the highest concentration of natural springs in the world.”

Alachua County is a grouping of eleven small municipalities, the largest and most central being Gainesville. “As the economic, retail and entertainment hub of Alachua County, Gainesville has an interesting amount of movement in and out of the city all day long,” says Davenport.

Statistically, however, the numbers do not paint an accurate picture of Gainesville. “When you say that the city has a population of 127,000, it sounds kind of small, but that number does not reflect reality,” says Davenport. “Most of the county’s largest employers are in Gainesville, and from a sophisticated level, Gainesville has everything from entertainment to food restaurants and art. It’s probably much more established than your typical community of the same size. It’s just a completely different ball game.”

Since many students attend educational facilities in Gainesville, the city’s largest demographic is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, making Gainesville a very youth-infused area. “It’s a very active, engaged, outdoor community with quite a bit of nightlife and a natural love of everything outside,” explains Davenport. “Gainesville is home to some of the brightest minds in Florida.”

At the centre of Gainesville, there is the University of Florida. “It is obviously one of the best universities in the country,” says Davenport.” Now ranked thirteenth in all public universities in the United States, the University of Florida has between 50,000 and 53,000 students and features sixteen colleges throughout the campus. It is one of only four to six universities in the country that offers every discipline on a single two-thousand-acre campus.

Gainesville is very proud of the University of Florida’s many successful incubators, two of which are the Progress Park – North Florida Center for Business and Innovation and The Sid Martin Biotech Institute. The latter was named the Incubator of the Year by the University Business Incubators group.

“It has achieved unprecedented success, and that’s probably our most developed technology sector,” explains Davenport. “We’ve seen multiple different successes roll out of there.”
Many of the spin-off companies from these incubators have gone public and have attracted billions of dollars in funding. “University of Florida’s first billion dollar investment into one of its spin-off companies was AGTC in biogenetics,” says Davenport. “The university is really pushing forward on multiple different fronts. And the college of engineering, for one, is just as highly regarded.”

Right beside the University of Florida is the Santa Fe College which was named the winner of the 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, making it the premier community college in the country. Another 20,000 to 24,000 students attend the Santa Fe College every year.

“A need to keep our college students here is something that we’re cognizant of,” says Davenport. “So, hooking them up with the industry that exists here is of paramount importance to us. These assets are quite rare and unique when compared to other municipalities all over the country, so we don’t want to take that for granted. We’re looking for ways to leverage all of that for the future economy here in Gainesville.”

Gainesville, therefore, aims to make its city attractive on all levels. “We are working on all sorts of physical infrastructures pertaining to downtown,” explains Davenport. “We want that to be our showpiece, and we have a huge millennial population that wants to see walkability, bike riding, trails and paths. We’re working on putting all those kinds of pieces together and balancing it with bringing in industry and growing companies for the next generation.”

“Another India-based software company, USR Systems, came into Gainesville. That created 142 jobs,” says Davenport. “We’ve also gotten a whole new set of high-end retail and entertainment. Probably close to two million square feet of new retail space. One of the developments is at least one million, and the second development is closely behind it. With several hundred thousand square feet of new retail office space, it has the first transit-oriented bridge in the state of Florida.”

Here is a city that isn’t afraid to try new things. “We do a lot of ‘firsts.’ We believe in checking out ideas on every single level,” says Davenport. “We want our community to be a living laboratory for great ideas along the city, university and business sectors and an example of a public-private partnership, leveraging the brainpower coming out of that university, the great curiosity of the city and our business leadership.”

The City of Gainesville partnered with Uber, Eldercare of Alachua County and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce on a ground-breaking program called Freedom and Motion, a pilot program to offer seniors the opportunity to have door-to-door Uber service. This was in response to a transportation challenge that the city was facing, and it has been incredibly successful.

“Now, it’s open to all our seniors throughout the city. Where, instead of waiting through long bus routes, they can have their own door-to-door ride, and it’s subsidized through a special account by the city,” explains Davenport. “Wells Fargo jumped in and provided funds for low-income seniors, and our seniors’ centre at University of Florida teaches them how to use the app. It’s a great program, and it had never before been done anywhere in the country.”

The City of Gainesville contracted the internationally renowned design company IDO San Francisco to develop a new concept for user-centered government. “We have something called the Blue Ribbon Task Force Report – an initiative to completely flip the paradigm of government to the people, and it is how we’ve become the most user-friendly city in the country for our citizens and residents,” explains Davenport. “It is a game changer of the highest degree for our community.”

“We also have Innovation Square and Infinity Hall, for students who come to University of Florida with a business plan in hand and are actually working on developing a business while they’re going to college,” explains Davenport. “That’s another first.”

“One of the advantages to being a region of this size is that we can take a look at all kinds of ideas that might be more cumbersome in other places. We’ve got the right formula,” says Davenport. “We also have a five-year economic development plan. Our goal is to create 3,500 jobs in one of five target sectors: software and IT, bioscience and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, advanced logistics and agricultural technology – all sectors that fit nicely with what Gainesville has to offer. For example, Florida is an agricultural state in many ways, and Agricultural Technology is offered at University of Florida. Having said that, the technology that crosses over with agriculture could solve the future global problems of water, food, security of food, energy – all of these issues are areas of vital importance.”

Gainesville is in the new third most populated state in the nation. It is between Miami, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia and only ninety miles from two deep water ports, making it an ideal location for transporting goods.

“I think the future is ours to make,” says Davenport. “It’s a moment in time for this community and region. I see this region as being able to fuel many tenants of the next stages of globalization, based on just our unique characteristics: location, university, state of Florida and international nature. All those pieces come together to create a very unique situation. I think it’s poised to be a leader in the economy.”

Perfectly positioned, Gainesville and Alachua County are on the cusp of garnering lots of attention and making a mark on the world stage as the place to be for great ideas and innovative business. “That energy is everywhere, and it’s a really exciting time,” says Davenport.

July 27, 2017, 8:30 AM EDT

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