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Orlando For Entreprenuers, Worth Magazine

This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth#WorthDestinations

By Helen Anne Travis

A vibrant tech scene is thriving in the shadow of the Mouse’s ears.

Twenty-five years ago, downtown Orlando, Fla.’s Church Street Station was hopping. Locals and visitors—mostly visitors—came to watch “Red Hot Mama” Ruth Crews perform at Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Jazz Emporium, sip coffee and cocktails under the chandeliers of the Orchid Garden ballroom, and listen to country newcomers Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson at the Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House.

The complex was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state—until it wasn’t.

The theme parks wanted in on Church Street Station’s eat/shop/play success, so they built their own entertainment districts (think Downtown Disney, which opened in 2001.) For Church Street Station, the impact was devastating. In 2003, Lou Pearlman, then famous for birthing the Backstreet Boys and ’NSync, bought the mostly vacant complex with big plans to revive it. Plans changed when he was later busted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from investors in an elaborate Ponzi scheme and fled to Bali.

And then came the recession.

For years the once-bustling Church Street Exchange, the Station’s former shopping emporium, sat empty.

That was then. Today, the Exchange is buzzing with new life. The reason? A booming tech community. Attracted by a well-educated workforce and lifestyle advantages, entrepreneurs are creating a vibrant hub that is perhaps the best evidence that Orlando is about more than just theme parks.

In 2014, a nonprofit coworking space called Canvs was created on the Exchange’s first floor. Here, more than 100 tech-related businesses and startups work on everything from video email to online doctor reviews.

They share communal desks made from old doors (the doorknob holes are great for running wires), take turns on the Cisco TelePresence—a top-of-the-line suite of video-conferencing technology—and talk shop around the kegerator. Networking events are frequent, including the monthly Orlando Tech Meetup. At more than 4,000 members, it’s the largest tech Meetup in the southeast.

Upstairs is PlanSource, a web-based human resources and benefits-administration company that just received a $70 million investment from Great Hill Partners, a Boston private equity group. The Exchange’s third floor is now home to the online document-management firm PowerDMS. UniKey, a smart lock creator featured on the reality show Shark Tank, is just down the street.

“Before, there wasn’t a central gathering point for the local entrepreneurial community,” says Orrett Davis, executive director of the Orlando Tech Association. “If you asked, ‘Where does Orlando’s tech and startup scene live?’ there wasn’t a clear answer.”

Today, many local tech entrepreneurs say the answer is crystal clear: downtown. And they’re not the only ones moving into Orlando’s urban core. Nearly two dozen businesses have opened downtown since the start of 2016. There’s a yoga studio and a food co-op; an art bar and an oyster bar; a spinning studio and a Mexican soul food restaurant.

Even months after its grand opening, you still have to wait an hour to get a table at the new Wahlburgers, a fast-casual burger chain à la Shake Shack.

It wasn’t always this way, says Donna Mackenzie, Canvs’ executive director. Before the influx of tech startups in and around the Church Street Station, downtown dried up after the daily 5 p.m. exodus. “But now, any time of day or night, it is hopping,” she says.

Technology is Orlando’s second-largest industry behind tourism, but it predates Walt Disney—the area’s most famous entrepreneur—by more than a decade. In the mid-20th century, companies like Lockheed Martin launched operations here to get a head start in the space race taking place just an hour east at Cape Canaveral. Their hunger for tech-savvy employees led to the creation of the Florida Technological University, now the University of Central Florida, the second-largest university in the nation, which was named one of the nation’s “most innovative” universities by U.S. News & World Report this year.

Orlando is home to the biggest computer modeling, training and simulation cluster in the world, with everyone from EA Sports to JetBlue to the U.S. Navy coming here to take advantage of the talent and tools available, says Jennifer Wakefield, vice president of marketing and communications at the Orlando Economic Development Commission.

“Tech is not new to Orlando,” she notes. “Tech has been here since the 1950s and ’60s.”

But due to the theme parks and golf courses, tourism became and remains Orlando’s dominant industry—a fact that, for many businesses and their investors, actually adds to the city’s appeal. Orlando’s importance as a tourism market—62 million people visited the city in 2014—is the reason Matt Zito, managing partner of Travel Startups Incubator, headquartered his company here. In the past year and a half Zito’s incubator has invested $50,000 worth of cash and business development services into each of 15 separate travel startups, and more deals are in the works. Two of these companies were already based in Orlando, and Zito convinced the founders of another—business-travel booking agency Biz Airlines— to relocate from Brazil.

While the investment he makes in each company is modest, the real carrot Zito dangles is Orlando’s relatively low cost of living and the possibility of hobnobbing with some of the biggest names in the tourism and hospitality space. “From a purely industry perspective this is the hub of the travel world,” Zito says. “It’s really easy for them to get introductions and make business partners.”

Many of Orlando’s wealthiest residents and executives are choosing to live in nearby Lake Nona, a high-end development from the Tavistock Group that includes restaurants, retail and an exclusive country club and golf course. It also contains Medical City, a hospital-cum-research center anchored by the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute and the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. The addition of Lake Nona’s first gated community in Medical City was announced in April. The U.S. Tennis Association’s national campus will open there later this year, and Tavistock is building a 50,000-square-foot office building targeted at sports clients.

Travel and hospitality entrepreneurs agree Orlando has everything they need to succeed. “We have smart people here, we have a lower cost of living and we have overall great weather,” says Ron Ben-Zeev, cofounder of Sqygl, a multicity-itinerary planner headquartered at Canvs. “Why not be here instead of freezing our butts off in Boston, or worrying about earthquakes in San Francisco?”