It's not easy being compared to one of the nation's fastest growing job markets in Orlando's Orange County. But economic development officials in Osceola believe they're in the midst of a transformative period that will put their county at the forefront of Central Florida job creation over the next decade.
"This is a county that, up until very recently has been considered essentially rural, with an Ag-based economy followed by a tourism economy. So the infrastructure, mix of land uses and labor force have reflected all of that," said Jeff Jones, strategic initiatives director for Osceola County.
"That is changing, both from a sort of natural expansion of the Orlando Metropolitan Area as it moves horizontally and expands into Osceola," he continued. "It's also occurring by design by Osceola and the cities of Kissimmee and St. Cloud."
Economic development officials call this a rebuilding year for Osceola as they try to establish a foundation of new infrastructure that will attract high-wage and high-value jobs.
The Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Kissimmee will feature a 100,000-square-foot facility in the second half of 2016 that should attract companies that produce cutting-edge products like smart sensors and photonics devices. And multiple major highway expansions are in various stages of development across Osceola.
These projects put Osceola's economic development team in a position of describing the future to companies that would have to invest today before such infrastructure is ready. The county has a budget of $1 million for tax breaks and grants it could offer this year.
By comparison, Orange County has $953,000 budgeted for tax breaks and grant awards this year, said Eric Ushkowitz, overseer of the county's Economic Development Department, in an interview with GrowthSpotter in early May.
Osceola economic development officials have approved one incentive aid package so far this year for a company referred to by code name "Project Fresh."
A manufacturing firm that has yet to announce its move to Osceola, Project Fresh has been approved for up to $120,000 under Enterprise Florida's Qualified Targeted Industry Program (QTI), of which the county would contribute 20 percent.
The incentive is awarded after officials verify the company has created at least 40 new jobs that pay 115 percent of the county's average annual wage, which would be $37,000 or more.
Economic development staff are working on about 10 other projects now for corporate incentive offers, Jones said. One of those is an existing Osceola firm for which the Board of County Commissioners has resolved to support.
Other company expansion proposals in the pipeline may not reach the stage of incentives but could benefit from fast-track permitting by the county, said Christina Morris, project manager with the economic development department.
In 2014, Osceola County approved a similar incentive package for "Project Rattlesnake," a manufacturing firm that has finished renovating factory space in the county but has yet to announce its opening. That company should create 60-plus jobs with salaries of $36,000 or more.
Osceola's biggest splash in economic development incentive packages was in October 2013, when real-time 3D imaging and printing company Photon-Xmoved its corporate headquarters from Alabama to Kissimmee.
The company committed to bring 110 new jobs to the country over three years, with an average wage of $60,000 per year and invest $6 million in the 7,000-square-foot former Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau, on East U.S. Highway 192.
In exchange, Photon-X was given a five-year lease to the county-owned building, the first three years of which the company will pay $1 per year. For each new job created up to 110, the company will get $4,000 to $5,000 in tax rebates from the state and county.
"Photon-X is a great example of Osceola being discovered by these types of industries, and the more of those individual successes we get, success breeds success," Jones said. "We're still looking at near-term, the next several years, not having a huge number of projects coming in. But with each year we'll get a bit more than the year before, and certainly the sensor project that the county and UCF are working on has the ability to be transformative and to help us make a quantum leap in moving forward."
The county partnered with Kissimmee and St. Cloud in 2013 to create a new marketing entity to attract businesses, the Greater Osceola Partnership for Economic Prosperity (GOPEP), which has a a $400,000 budget for office and marketing operations to promote the county.
GOPEP spent all of last year "just getting organized," per its executive director Bill Martin. But now it has a rich array of data organized about buildings and properties available in the county. The organization is pursuing up to 25 companies at any one time from outside Central Florida or those in Osceola that want to expand.
One local firm GOPEP helped expand without spending a dime was Carrousel Therapy Center of St. Cloud. As a one-stop shop for health care services focused on mental health, psychiatry and pediatrics for mentally disabled and handicapped children, Carrousel had been operating since 2011 out of a 4,000-square-foot office space.
Martin knew the owners were itching to expand and introduced them eight months ago to a 14,000-square-foot office space that was being vacated in St. Cloud by a University of Central Florida incubator that moved to Kissimmee.
Owners Dalis and Jose Rivera moved Carrousel into the new facility in May, boosted staff hiring and project revenue to top $6 million this year, up from less than $2 million in 2014.