Central Florida basks in warm business climate

Orlando is not all Mickey Mouse.

The city, long synonymous with Walt Disney World and other theme parks in the eyes of the public, has been gradually diversifying its economic base.

The proportion of its work force engaged in manufacturing is smaller than that of the national work force: 12.6 vs. 22 percent. Orlando's theme park industry gives its work force a large service sector.

But Orlando's manufacturing sector is increasing. The Orlando Sentinel Star newspaper estimates manufacturing will employ 14.3 percent of the Orlando work force by 1990. And that level might be reached even sooner because a whole string of corporate expansions or relocations in the Orlando area has recently been announced.

Orlando, in fact, is part of a larger trend. Florida's business climate was ranked first in the nation recently by Alexander Grant & Co., a Chicago-based national accounting firm specializing in plant locations.

Florida, according to the survey, ranked among the highest because of the low level of state and local welfare expenditures, its growing population, its high percentage of population enrolled in vocational schools, and its low level of unionization.

Orlando certainly has seen its share of corporations set up shop here. Martin Marietta Corporation has decided to spend $152 million on a new engineering, manufacturing, and office complex that is to eventually employ about 4,000 people. Martin Marietta Aerospace already employs 9,000 in Orlando. (Martin Marietta's commitment to Orlando is contingent on extension of a freeway to its new facility. Currently the state and country are arguing over who should pay for it.)

Westinghouse Electric Corporation has also announced plans to consolidate in Orlando its steam-turbine generating division, now based in Philadelphia, and its power-systems division, now located in Pittsburgh. This move is expected to add 850 new people by the end of 1983.

And, Roy Harris, executive vice-president of the Industrial Development Commission of Mid-Florida Inc., says Western Electric still intends to build a $ 400 million semiconductor plant in Orlando. After spending $25 million, Western Electric ''postponed'' construction of the plant, citing the depressed state of the semiconductor industry. Hans Tews, president of Sun Bank, says he thinks Western Electric will still use the facility, though not for manufacturing semiconductors. If built, the plant will employ about 1,100 persons.

Some of the corporations now calling Orange County their home cite the low level of taxes as the reason for locating in Orlando. Still others simply like the Orlando area.

''First of all,'' says Bob Whalen, president of Martin Marietta Aerospace in Orlando, ''It's a nice place to be; the quality of life is excellent.''

Mr. Whalen says the presence of the University of Central Florida (UCF) was a plus. But, he adds, ''Over the long term you can't be dependent on one university.

A proposed $100 million research park to be built next to UCF should help companies like Martin Marietta, Mr. Whalen says. The fact that half the engineers in the state are in central Florida also makes recruiting somewhat easier. Cultural activities in the area help draw companies, too.''One out of every two candidates we interview,'' Mr. Whalen says, ''inquires about the symphony, theater, and ballet.''

The most critical need, as far as Mr. Whalen is concerned, is for more affordable housing in the Orlando area. New apartments are scarce.

Orlando was competing against Richmond, Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta to get Westinghouse's business. According to Roger Pynn, a Westinghouse spokesman, the final decision came down to the proximity of the university and the new international airport. Other considerations included the restaurants, the low tax structure, and the relatively low cost of housing.

Margie Varney, an economist with the Chamber of Commerce, points out that the availability of relatively low-cost, but high-caliber, labor has attracted a lot of businesses. ''Disney employs 14,000 people, of which 70 percent are below the age of 30. This is a huge labor pool for someone like Western Electric.''

Local officials think this economic diversification is vital. ''Central Florida must actively seek industry that will complement the existing tourist sector and provide more high-paying, high value-added jobs and in turn generate the tax revenues to support the expansion of central Florida throughout the 1980 s and into the next century,'' UCF economist Dr. Frederick Raffa.

Dr. Raffa believes the area has a considerable amount of untapped potential. It has a foreign trade zone near the airport which has yet to be fully utilized. Transportation companies are discovering that Orlando is a good regional distribution spot.

As the downtown area receives a facelift, financial institutions and insurance companies are moving in. And the influx of young professionals has attracted service industries, for instance brokerage firms.

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