The biggest event hosted by the CEP each year is our Annual Luncheon. Each of the last four years, this has been a Sold Out event and the 2017 edition was no different. In fact, this year’s event filled up before Christmas – a full six weeks before the event! For the 600 attendees we are grateful and hope you left excited about our community and the CEP. For the many, many more who were not able to attend, I am excited to share with you a few highlights of this event.

Moving Forward – A Race to the Finish

At the CEP’s inaugural Annual Luncheon in January 2013, we laid out the plan which had just been adopted by the CEP Board of Directors. This plan, called Moving Forward, was to guide the start-up of this newly merged organization and set three major goals all of which were to be accomplished over the next five years. The plan detailed how the entity was to be structured with our emphasis on our five key program areas: Business Advocacy, Business Attraction, Business Creation, Business Retention and Business Services, as well as a Business Support area which would provide administrative help to the efforts. The plan outlined how each area would be staffed, what would be the focus of their efforts, initial plans for implementing those efforts, and how each area would interact with the others.

The three big goals were really about the culmination of the success of the rest of the plan. To reach these goals would require the successful implementation of each of these programs. The goals were set by the Board following a day-long strategy session with economist Dr. Sharon Younger. Dr. Younger works with communities and states across the nation on these issues and was ready to push the Board. In fact, she insisted the Board raise their initial goals in order to successfully address concerns regarding raising local wages.

The first of the three big goals was to impact the announced creation of 3,500 new jobs. These are jobs from primary industries such as manufacturing, distribution and office. It does not include healthcare or retail growth though the CEP has certainly assisted a number of these in recent years. Secondly, these jobs would have an average wage which was 15 percent above the County average wage. This was a key metric if the organization was going to have the impact desired. Finally, the last goal was for the announced capital investment from these projects to reach $225 million. This was a huge goal but one which would impact public and private partners equally.

Even though 31 December 2016 marked just four years through our plan, the CEP was extremely excited to announce at the Annual Luncheon that we had already exceeded all of the goals in the plan the organization had successfully structured and hired as outlined in Moving Forward. As a result, it should be no surprise that all three of the big goals had been reached. The CEP played a role in impacting the announced creation of 3,533 new jobs over this four-year period. These jobs pay or will pay an average wage which is 17 percent above the County average wage. Finally, the capital investment from these projects exceeds $321 million!

The focus on raising wages is perhaps one of the most exciting outcomes of this effort. The Ocala MSA has long been among the lowest wage metros in the state. However, the most recent data from the State of Florida and the US Department of Commerce demonstrates that we are making significant progress. From 2012-2015 (the latest year available), the Ocala MSA has made significant progress on closing the gap with some of our peer Florida cities. Over the last three years, the wage gap with Lakeland narrowed by 21 percent, Gainesville by 23.4 percent, Tallahassee by 35 percent, and the gap with Daytona Beach was virtually eliminated! It is important to note that these communities were not standing still during this period but that wages here grew more quickly.

Moving Forward—Phase II

After celebrating the success of the last four years, the rest of the event was dedicated to outlining the new five-year plan aptly name Moving Forward—Phase II. Next month’s column will be dedicated to outlining this plan and the goals to be reached by 31 December 2021.

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