By David Bauerlein
The seven-county greater Jacksonville area can realistically aspire to become the “highest performing economy in the country” over the next five years, according to an Elevate Northeast Florida report that gives insights into how the region can use its water resources to brand itself nationally and what can be done to convince residents they can flourish here for their entire careers.
The Elevate Florida report is a follow-up to a previous five-year strategy called Innovate Florida that JAX USA Partnership did in 2012 when the region still was trying to bounce back from the Great Recession.
“Today’s economy is totally different,” said Amy Holloway, president and CEO of Avalanche Consulting, the Austin, Texas, firm that worked on both reports. “There’s a real optimism in this region. You guys are in the top 20 regions in the country right now, so a lot has changed.”
The report, which was released during a luncheon at a University of North Florida meeting room, cites a couple of trends that could pose problems. Median household incomes in Northeast Florida are growing slower than other regions, even as housing prices rise escalate, the report says.
Duval County is where most residents go to work, but outside Duval county, more than 60 percent of residents commute across county lines to reach their jobs, making it a commuter-driven economy.
A survey of people who work in Duval County but live in outlying counties found that people most commonly made that choice because they determined the other counties have higher-quality schools, lower crime, and better lifestyle amenities.
The survey found that 42 percent of respondents are not aware of career pathways they could follow in Northeast Florida to make advances in their jobs, something the report said needs improvement so the region can keep talented people from moving away.
The report assesses a region made up of Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties. Holloway said that while the region frequently gets called Northeast Florida, it would be better to identify is as something like the greater Jacksonville area in national and global marketing campaigns because almost all other regions identify themselves by their most populous cities.
She said for marketing campaigns to be successful, Northeast Florida residents must have a greater comfort level about telling the region’s story.
“I come from Austin,” she said. “I think part of Austin’s success is tied to the community’s love for itself. We’re all spokespeople for Austin being cool.”
She said a challenge for Northeast Florida is to have the same swagger. The abundant waterways are a way to have some bragging rights.
“Water is in our DNA,” she said. “It’s a connector across the region.”
Other recommendations focused on intensifying support for “industry clusters” such as the health and biomedical industry, the financial services industry, advanced manufacturing, and transportation and logistics. The report said the region can do more to connect with the rest of the world through trade.
Holloway said looking into the future, regions will be competing to take advantage of new kinds of “smart” technology such as self-driving vehicles and information sharing. She said Northeast Florida is poised to take a lead as a “smart region” if its does projects such as a “smart corridor” for Bay Street in downtown Jacksonville and then expands the technology across the seven counties.
“I’m on my soapbox, I know,” she said as she riffed on what cities in other parts of the country are doing.