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From Disneyworld to bio-tech: Orlando evolves

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On this show, we've been asking you, dear listeners, to send in stories of your local economy — how it's changing and what you're seeing around you.

This week's story about local money comes from Orlando, a city best known for, well, you know. But Warren Miller, a freelance journalist based on Florida, called to tell us the tale about how Orlando is transforming itself into a tech hub, investing especially in health sciences, bio-tech, hospitals and engineering.

Or perhaps we should say Orlando is returning to its roots — after all, NASA's history in Florida affected much of the state's economy, and Orlando, said Miller, developed its University of Central Florida as an engineering school starting in the late '60s, and it was the legacy of space flight simulators that led to an emerging video game economy there. 

Now, though, "the newer and more exciting part of that is that Orlando is emerging fairly rapidly as a health science center," Miller said.

The University of Central Florida now has a medical school, research institutes and a hospital on campus.

The biotech boom in Florida is by design — the state, under Governor Jeb Bush, has subsidized the industry to the tune of $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds. The growth hasn't always been as robust as backers would hope, although Miller said now that the economy is recovering from the 2008 and 2009 slowdown, some delayed projects are returning to speed.

And tourism and tech are now merging. 

"Disney is developing digital media at UCF and Full Sail University and testing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disneyworld," he said. "The investment in digital technology is what's going to keep the major tourist attractions competitive in the world."

Orlando is uniquely suited to fast growth, Miller said, because it's right in the middle of the state, and you can expand in four directions. Now, granted, that's already leading to urban sprawl and worsening traffic. The city is nearly six times as populated as it was just 50 years ago. And Orlando will have to rebuild new communities as it grows — Miller calls it "a city of newcomers."

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