Digital Main Streets Spur Growth

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By Jeff Perlman Courtesy YourDelrayBoca.com Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has vision. He’s a strong mayor on a mission to diversify Orlando beyond tourism, time shares and t-shirts. So far, his plan is working. Downtown Orlando has come alive in recent years and is far, far more than Church Street Station these days. Lake Nona is a 7,000 acre hot bed for the medical industry with a school, research institutions and nearby start-ups taking root within the city limits. Orlando hasn’t and will never abandon tourism, nor should it, but Orlando also understands that it is never wise to rest on your laurels and it’s almost always smart to diversify. In addition to medicine and urbanism, a nascent urban food industry is thriving with farm to table restaurants, organic growers, food manufacturers and the growth of “foodie” events and media celebrated by the likes of Edible Orlando magazine. Add technology to the mix as well. Mayor Dyer recently announced the creation of a “Digital Main Street” program which will seek to promote, support and grow Orlando’s tech community. The Digital Main Street is modeled on the long standing neighborhood revitalization known as Main Street. “When we think of economic development for Boca Raton and Delray Beach we should think beyond the “old school” efforts.” Pineapple Grove in Delray Beach used the Main Street program and philosophy to help redevelop Pineapple Grove in the 90s and early 2000s. Main Street programs coordinate events, handle marketing and promotion, and work on the economic development of select areas. In the case of a Digital Main Street, the city will partner with the private sector on events, marketing and other activities needed to seed and fuel tech entrepreneurship in Orlando. A basic rule of thumb is that government should get out of the way of entrepreneurs and that makes lots of sense. But while government can’t act as angel, seed or VC investor, there is a role for it to play. Among the items that can be addressed by government are: removing unnecessary regulations that may hinder companies from locating, growing or even forming in your city, creating urban environments that attract entrepreneurs and working with the private sector to brand, promote and create events that are attractive to “start-up communities.” The Main Street program in Delray’s Pineapple Grove did much to brand the area, which was the brainchild of Norman Radin, a visionary businessman who saw potential where others saw blight. The Grove started with meetings, activities, events, and committees, all designed to build excitement and momentum. It worked. Spectacularly. When we think of economic development for Boca Raton and Delray Beach we should think beyond the “old school” efforts. Keep your incentives, add new ones (if they make sense), streamline approval processes but start to think creatively—like Mayor Dyer. Here are some thoughts: • Create an event: Spark has worked for Jacksonville, PopTech for Maine, SXSW for Austin, Business Innovation Factory for Providence. Boca Raton and Delray Beach have the weather, the airports, the hotels and the amenities to make it happen. There are also some terrific venues, including Lynn University, the Crest Theater, Arts Garage and Living Room Theater at FAU. • Support Programs that work: The Boca Raton Chamber’s YEA program, which encourages youth entrepreneurship, is an example. All local high schools should teach entrepreneurship. And we should strive to bring new programs that have worked elsewhere here—such as “Girls Who Code.” • Invest in Human Capital: FAU held a business plan competition last week but will those who competed stay and grow here? We need to encourage local investing (locavesting). The capital is here but are we investing locally? We should develop a strategy to bring our best and brightest back home after college. It’s the flip side of “Field of Dreams”—if they come back, they will build it. • Invest in MedUTech: Boca has a great branding mechanism to grow its health care, education and technology sectors. • Sports and Food 2.0: Delray Beach has a unique opportunity to grow its food economy and build on its reputation to become a sports mecca. So does Boca Raton. The question is and has always been do we have the leadership– public and private – to make it happen?