ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings described a growing community with a wealthy future and a tourism industry in “full throttle” at the 2022 State of the County address Friday morning.
Speaking from the Orange County Convention Center, Demings said that while the county’s population is expected to reach 1.5 million residents by December, the more than 1.4 million currently living here have accomplished great things.
“We are investing boldly and going where we’ve never gone before,” Demings said. “...This has already been a year of extraordinary accomplishments as we continue to invest boldly in our future and work to make this the greatest county in the state of Florida and perhaps in the nation.”
In last year’s address, the mayor marked a shift in the COVID-19 pandemic. Demings reflected and reiterated the county had seen “triumph over defeat” as many industries continued to rebound.
Speaking Friday at his fourth State of the County event, Demings began by highlighting the county’s “primary economic engine,” the local hospitality and tourism industry.
“I am happy to say it is in full throttle. Our tourism industry broke another record in March of this year. We collected $38.5 million in tourist development tax dollars, which shattered the previous TDT record of $31.2 million collected in March 2019,” Demings said.
After breaking the all-time TDT record in March, the county went on to report its highest ever tourism tax collections for the month of April, bringing in nearly $35 million and marking a 103.1% increase over April 2021.
Looking ahead and behind, Demings credited some of the cash flow to recent big happenings at local theme parks — such as Sea World Orlando’s Ice Breaker, EPCOT’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration — and reminding the crowd that Universal has since resumed construction on its EPIC Universe, an entirely new theme park set to open by the end of summer 2025.
“None of this would have been possible without major capital investments by our world-class theme parks and their multibillion-dollar expansion projects,” Demings said.
The Orange County Convention Center is anticipated to host 155 events during the current fiscal year, generating an estimated economic impact of $2.4 billion, Demings said. MegaCon Orlando 2022 in May saw nearly 100,000 attendees, what the mayor said resulted in $128 million in economic impact for the county.
Putting faces to those tourism tax dollars, Demings said the city of Orlando welcomed 59.3 million visitors last year, numbers cited from Visit Orlando which soar above New York’s 33 million visitors and Las Vegas’ 32 million recorded in the same timeframe.
“We are not quite at our pre-pandemic numbers. However, we’ve come a long way as our travel and visitor numbers continue to climb this year,” Demings said.
Demings discussed the county’s many partnerships made to help those struggling to find work. Orange County has joined with initiatives such as the U.S. Army Partnership for Youthful Success (PaYS) Program in order to help the county recruit from what Demings called “a trained, experienced and well-matched talent pool.”
The county has also funded a three-year partnership with the Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business to foster hundreds of new nonprofit organizations and it dedicated $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to launch Level Up Orange with CareerSource of Central Florida, a resource that has served nearly 18,000 county residents so far.
Based on 2020 Census data, the county’s population increased 25% since 2010 to 1.43 million residents, what Demings said prompted the Board of County Commission in February to approve a new map of revised district boundaries, including a significant expansion of District 3 southward past State Road 528. Learn more about the redistricting process by clicking here.
As affordable housing initiatives struggle to keep up with skyrocketing rent and home prices in Central Florida, Demings said the 10-year “Housing for All” action plan launched in 2020 has kept county leaders proactive in responding to such challenges.
“So far, our Housing for All Trust Fund has invested $33 million in public-private partnerships to increase the supply of affordable and workforce housing,” Demings said. “In addressing the housing (and) rent crises, Orange County has provided approximately $25 million in federal funds to assist over 4,000 residents with emergency rental assistance to keep them in their homes.”
The mayor urged county residents to vote in November for a proposed one-cent transportation sales tax commissioners approved in April. Demings began to push for the penny tax in 2019 before pausing to focus on the pandemic and reigniting the campaign in January 2022.
“The time to act is now. The Transportation Sales Tax referendum will be on the November ballot. This is a generational opportunity to transform Orange County’s transportation system,” Demings said. “As you may have heard, the penny sales tax is expected to raise $600 million annually (and) more than half — or 51% — would be paid by tourists. Having someone else pay more than half for something that you need is what I call a good deal.”
Demings said the tax, if passed, would fund a “true multi-modal transit system with improved access, reliability and connectivity,” vastly improving east-west connectivity and bringing together all corners of Orange County. It’s expected to raise $600 million annually, Demings said.
“We are going to see inflation going down. What’s not going to decline is the traffic congestion in our community, particularly with the increase of population and visitation, that’s going to put a lot of pressure on our transportation infrastructure. I also believe (this will) impact... our local economy, this transportation tax proceeds will help put people to work,” Demings said.
In addition to benefiting those who use public transit — with 45% of what’s collected to be earmarked for LYNX and Sunrail — Demings said another 45% would go toward upgrading major road intersections, improving and repaving existing roadways and addressing “the dire state of bicycle and pedestrian safety in Orange County.”
“There would be better-protected bike lanes, and technology to reduce crashes involving vehicles, or persons walking or biking. Increased roadway and pedestrian lighting plus adding more sidewalks are also part of the plan,” Demings said. “I want to point out that the positive impacts of the plan would be felt for decades.”
For the time being, Demings said the county will continue to boldly invest in the industries and people still working to bring the community together.