Destination 2016: Orlando

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.
Still a small town in many ways, Orlando is an easy place to make connections and launch startups.
Quality of Life
A burgeoning restaurant scene and some of the best golf courses in the nation are a draw.
Business Climate
Access to capital and no income tax make Orlando a prime place for business.
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, where 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.

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