Why Orlando could be hit hard by pending COVID-19 recession

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando is expected to be one of the worst hit cities in the United States by the pending COVID-19 recession. That’s because, despite efforts to diversify the area’s economy, it remains a tourist-dependent town.

Developers and policymakers have been trying to bolster Central Florida’s economy for years, by luring companies in technology, innovation and medical research. However, a top local economist said that likely won’t be enough to help the local economy ride out the downturn ahead.

Sean Snaith, UCF professor and director of the school’s Institute for Economic Forecasting, said Central Florida is in for the worst recession, since the Great Depression.

“Coronavirus

READ: How a drop in tourism will impact Central Florida’s ability to draw future visitors

“This is a very specific shock. It hurts tourism more than any other sector in the economy,” Snaith said. “So, the progress we’ve made since 2001 is helping to offset some of the pain that we’re currently experiencing.”

Channel 9 met Snaith in the middle of one of those signs of progress: Medical City. The development in Lake Nona has sprouted as a hub of high-tech, high-paying jobs in one of the fastest-growing industries: health care.

“Is it enough to completely insulate us from an event like this? The answer is obviously no,” Snaith said. “But we have seen growth.”

Snaith said as other industries grew in Orlando, tourism’s share didn’t shrink.

9 Investigates scoured Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and found in the decade since the recession, about a quarter of a million jobs have been added in the Orlando metro area. However, the Orlando Economic Partnership reports that four of the area’s top 10 employers are tourism-related. Just those four employers, which includes our major theme parks, account for nearly 130,000 jobs, which is about 10% of the area’s entire workforce.

“The last 10 years, we’ve had entrepreneurship in one pocket, and big industry in another pocket,” said Sheena Fowler, director of innovation for the Orlando Economic Partnership. “We’re looking at, how do we bridge that gap?”

READ: How the timeline of tourists’ return will impact Orlando’s economic recovery

That’s a major part of Fowler’s job. In a look ahead at the next decade, Fowler’s colleagues estimated that Orlando’s share of new industry growth was expected to outpace the national average in several areas, including computer systems design. The goal is not only to diversify, but to raise the area’s average wage.

But as efforts continue to lure major non-tourism companies to town, Snaith said no real recovery will be seen here until the tourism core is back to normal.

“Political officials and economic development folks realize we can’t keep all our economic eggs in one basket,” he said. “We do need to diversify in case of times like this.”

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.