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Politico: An Orlando America Doesn’t Know

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In the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shootings, The City Beautiful was riding the crest of a wave.  Forging a new identity that still embraced its roots as an international tourist destination but also seeking out something more. A tech boomtown with a new bike-share program (Juice Bikes), commuter rail system (SunRail) and scores of loyal soccer fans among many more exciting new additions to the city.  This Politico article takes a closer look at all the people, places and things that make this city – that locals A.K.A. Orlandoans know and love – so special. Read the full article below.

An Orlando American Doesn’t Know
June 13, 2016
Michael Grunwald

Orlando is known around the world as the city of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter, a tourist trap of theme parks surrounded by sleepy time-shares overlooking golf courses. But ten days before a terrorist would thrust his city into the global spotlight for much sadder and darker reasons, fourth-term Mayor Buddy Dyer took a reporter on a tour of the Orlando that people don’t know, an increasingly diverse, sustainable and cosmopolitan boomtown that led the nation in job growth last year. “We’re riding the crest of a wave,” Dyer said at the start of the tour.

For decades, “Orlando” has been shorthand for the cloistered destinations of Disney World and Universal Studios, and now it’s about to become shorthand for a horrific massacre, like “Sandy Hook” or “San Bernardino.” The worst mass shooting in American history has ended at least 50 lives and torn a savage hole in the urban fabric.

But the shooting at the Pulse nightclub hit a city that was already, proudly, defying its resort-and-convention stereotype. Though still a tourist mecca, hosting a record 66 million visitors in 2015, it’s also developed a fast-growing biotech cluster, an up-and-coming video game sector, and an international virtual-reality hub. Its median age is only 33, and while it’s still a majority-white city, it’s getting more Hispanic every day, especially since the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico has accelerated an influx from the island. Tragically, this new Orlando is also the kind of city where a murderer looking to unload his hatred can find a crowded gay club holding Latin Night.

Orlando’s once-drowsy downtown now features artisanal bakeries, brewpubs, tech incubators, city-funded sculptures, new sports arenas, a new performing arts center, a new commuter-rail system, a new bike-share system, a new police station built with savings produced by municipal energy conservation, and a slew of new mixed-use high-rises. At one point, Dyer stopped by Creative Village, a billion-dollar experiment in urbanism that will be anchored by the University of Central Florida’s Center for Emerging Media. A display case featured video games the school’s alumni helped create, from Guitar Hero to Madden to Call of Duty, as well as the high-tech motion-capture studio where Roger Federer and Tiger Woods came to immortalize their swings for millions of gamers.

The local economic development commission’s branding slogan has the ring of truth: “Orlando—You Don’t Know the Half of It.” A bunch of sleek new hospitals and research campuses have sprouted on a 1000-acre patch of dirt near the airport. “Economic development is usually glacial, but that was like a volcano erupting,” says economist Sean Snaith, head of UCF’s Institute for Competitiveness. In metro Orlando, even though hospitality workers outnumber tech workers, more wages are paid to the tech workers. And while only one-fourth of Americans think the nation is on the right track, Dyer’s last poll found a sizable majority of his residents thought the city was.

“Orlando is shattering the Mickey Mouse stereotypes,” said Craig Ustler, the developer of Creative Village. “We’re still seen as a place for older, white, suburban, drive-everywhere people, but we’re becoming a forward-thinking city.”

Politically, Orlando is part of the bellwether I-4 corridor that could well choose the next president, but its metro area, once reliable in its support for the Bush family, has become a Democratic stronghold in recent years. That tends to happen when cities become denser, younger and browner. Dyer is a generally moderate Democrat but an outspoken advocate of gun control and gay rights, in a state run by Republicans who have been hostile to both. And those issues will loom large in the coming months.

But Dyer wasn’t talking about politics yesterday; he was talking about healing. Orlando has strayed far from its cow-town roots, but it’s still the kind of place where residents lined up for hours to donate blood after the massacre, a testament to a local spirit of collaboration that Dyer mentioned at least a dozen times on an hourlong tour. Just about everything he showed off, from Creative Village to the new athletic and cultural amenities, involved public-private partnerships. He pointed out that when UCF opened a new medical school in Medical City in 2010, the community raised money to ensure that the first graduating class could attend for free.

“We’re showing that working together can work,” Dyer said.

Over the last 13 years, Dyer has served as a kind of bridge from the Orlando of older white guys with southern accents, like him, to the Orlando of newcomers like Carlos Carbonell, a gay 41-year-old Panamanian immigrant who owns a thriving software business and leads the Orlando Tech Alliance. When I met Carbonell at a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce business expo in Orlando’s massive convention center, he described the city as an overachieving underdog with a nagging branding problem.

“What does it tell you that someone like me is the leader of the tech community?” he asked. “People have no idea how much this place is changing.”  Last night, Carbonell was airing his anguish on social media over 50 victims of unthinkable violence, many of them gay Hispanics like himself. “I ache for my city and my community,” he tweeted. He also responded to Governor Rick Scott’s call for prayer: “And restrict gun sales. To like zero.”

Orlando is about to become a symbol again, not of fantasy and escape, but of America’s cultural, political and actual wars over terrorism and guns. Crime had been falling steadily here for years before the massacre—along with unemployment, teen pregnancy, and just about every other social ill—but it seems almost macabre to point that out now. For the forseeable future, the little-known Orlando that has been taking shape in the real world is probably going to remain little-known.

Read the full article here.

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