More than 300 people attended the Chamber's "iG Regional Economic Forum" on Thursday morning at the Santa Fe College Fine Arts Hall to hear about research into the area's strengths and weaknesses and what the community needs to do to take advantage of emerging economic trends.
After studying the local economy for six months, Amy Holloway, president of Avalanche Consulting, said "the list of assets is enviable."
Those include schools from K-12 to college, business incubators, a growing amount of venture capital funding in local businesses and research funding at the University of Florida.
The research funding and degree concentrations at UF — led by medical sciences and agricultural sciences — are in areas that attract companies, she said.
The demographic data show that the area still faces some challenges, however. Population growth — which she said is important for service providers from plumbers to restaurants to grow — has been slowing.
As a college town, Gainesville is below average in the number of people per capita ages 30 and older, which Holloway said presents a challenge when companies grow to the point of needing to hire middle-tier managers with five to 10 years of experience. She suggested reaching out to alumni who live elsewhere "so you don't lose the base of companies you worked so hard to create."
The median household income here is lower than the U.S. average, which can be used to lure companies interested in cheap labor, "but you want to bridge that gap so everyone here can prosper," she said.
Holloway said the one thing to accomplish to be more competitive than 99 percent of communities would be to align education at all levels with the skills local companies will need.
"It sounds like a no-brainer but it happens poorly in most areas," she said.
Keynote speaker Rebecca Ryan, author of "ReGeneration," said the U.S. has been in a winter cycle as institutions decline as a result of the 9/11 attacks and recession. Based on historic trends, the U.S. will emerge with a spring of prosperity starting in 2020, she said.
Ryan had a warning for cities that stop investing and start making cuts.
"Those cities that hunker down and say no more spending tend to lose their relative ranking because when spring comes again, they are not investing in any of the new things that come in bloom."
Ryan said Gainesville is hitting spring a little early based on all the announcements of new technology companies coming to town.