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Osceola Chamber CEO says population growth equals good news for business

As hurricane season continues with activity historically beginning to ramp up later this month, WMFE's Talia Blake checked in with Osceola County to see how businesses are doing.

In 2022, Hurricane Ian brought devastating flood waters to parts of Kissimmee.

John Newstreet, President and CEO of The Osceola Chamber, said people continue to move to the county and that’s trickling down into local businesses.

Listen to the full conversation in the player above.

John Newstreet is the President and CEO of The Osceola Chamber
Osceola Chamber
John Newstreet is the President and CEO of The Osceola Chamber

John Newstreet: Depending upon who you speak to and when you speak to them, we're probably the top second largest, the top two fastest growing county in the state and in the country. When you look at that kind of growth, it's not just, we're going from 50,000 to 100,000, we've gone from about 200,000 to 400,000 in the last decades. So it's a big community getting bigger and growing rapidly, and with that comes opportunity and challenges. And so the state of business is no different than anywhere else you see. We're fighting inflation. We're fighting workforce issues. So overall, I think the state of business is good, although there are challenges. And so that's really the role of the chamber, is to help identify some of those challenges and help get you to the resources or help you get you through those challenges into greater success.

Talia Blake: Speaking of identifying challenges and helping these businesses, during last hurricane season Hurricane Ian brought devastating flooding to parts of Kissimmee. Have you talked to any businesses that were affected? How they're doing now and how are they getting through this hurricane season?

John Newstreet: Flooding was a heavy impact. We did put in, I say we as a community, where there was an appropriations request to the state legislature for flood mitigation work that was vetoed by the governor. There's some regrouping on that to see how do we better prepare for the future because I don't think we've seen our last hurricane and although we're more insulated in Central Florida, there's still a lot of preparation needed and remediation needed. I'm not aware of any businesses that had to shutter. But again, the may not have been members. Good Samaritan Village is a key example. They're a chamber member and a lot of displaced residents were there. It's happened more than once. And so is there a better way to assist that community or have that land space, if you will, assist the effort in the future?

Talia Blake: Piggybacking off of that, I'm curious what conversations are you all having here at the chamber when it comes to making sure that you have those resources ready to tell businesses and making sure you're ready to assist them, especially during this hurricane season when we just had such a hard hitting one last hurricane season?

John Newstreet: We have them in our building on the regular. We have an agreement with Small Business Development Center, which is hosted by UCF. There's several sites throughout our region, throughout the state, and throughout the country, but here in Osceola, it is in the Chamber building. They have dedicated office space where any day of the workweek, you can set an appointment, and come meet with the Small Business Development Center. As the hurricanes raced across the state, the Small Business Administration actually came in and sat down with us to make that link. When they have their disaster recovery centers set up and the resources that are available there, they want to make sure that's communicated out. So we use our communications platform, social media, newsletter, and website to share that information.

Talia Blake: Speaking of hurricanes in Osceola County, Osceola County has been growing a lot over recent years. Does the threat of future extreme weather, put a damper on any future growth in the region?

John Newstreet: Short answer is no. I was born and raised in South Florida and worked for elected officials across the state of Florida. You build upon lessons learned. I went through Hurricane Andrew in South Florida. During the 2004/2005 hurricanes with Hurricane Charley to Jean to Ivan, I was the state director of the American Legion. I followed these hurricanes into theses smaller communities to see what help we could provide. I've seen the incredible effects of hurricanes on the state of Florida, and I've seen each time us recover and get smarter and stronger. The legislature I know has put in hardening incentives, especially for our coastal regions. I think we're better prepared today than we were yesterday. I think we'll be better prepared tomorrow than today.

Talia Blake: Can you tell me about some of the businesses that you all work with here at the chamber?

John Newstreet: We are predominantly small business, far greater than 50%. I put it close to 90% of our membership is our local small businesses, main street businesses, but we're supported heavily by some of our bigger players. Walt Disney World is a chamber member. Universal Studios is a chamber member. There's a fine balance to how we all come together as the business community and through processes become that voice of business to say, 'we support this or we oppose that or how can we help,' is really most often our approach. So our businesses are varied, you can imagine. Small businesses put bread on families tables, local print shops to local attractions here in Osceola County, we're the tourist capital of the world. So they run the whole gamut. Health care, all health care partners, Orlando Health, AdventHealth and HCA are all all in the chamber working together to try to make the community stronger and make their workforce stronger. There's a few who may not be in membership. We welcome you in and and invite you to the table to have a voice.

Talia Blake: Speaking of putting food on the table, I know that there is a decent amount of farmland in Osceola County. And there are also some construction companies based here as well. Are there any concerns from the chamber? Or Are you hearing any concerns from some of the small businesses that you work with about the impacts from the recently signed immigration laws?

John Newstreet: So the immigration laws, we're definitely taking note, in fact, trying to explore maybe some education for our businesses as to what's in that law and how they need to comply and also how to react to that. So yeah, I haven't heard it heavily from the Ag community within my ranks.

Talia Blake: With Osceola's location close to the tourism corridor, how much business here in Osceola County is reliant on tourism?

John Newstreet: Short answer is heavily. It is our largest economic driver. If you base it ontourist development tax collections, I believe we're the third highest in the state, easily top five, but I think third or fourth. Orange is number one and Osceola, neighbor to the south, is top five. Ag is still heavy. We're establishing a semiconductor high tech kind of effort with NeoCity here as a third industry, but that is still in its infancy. So tourism is still the big winner here. And what's interesting is as much as we do have parts of Disney here and some great attractions all around, the bed tax is over half collected by our vacation rentals. That's a little nontraditional when you think about tourist tax because you're thinking hotel stays. But here in Osceola, we have some tremendous properties like 15-bedroom mansions that can house corporate entities and leadership teams for retreats, or several families. When you do that, you usually stay not a day or two like maybe in a hotel, you stay for a whole week. And so that again trickles down to local businesses. They're not going to eat in the same restaurant. They're not going to go to the same theme park day after day. When you stay for a week, you want to explore. So, it is a tremendous revenue source job creator here in Osceola County.

Talia Blake: Has that changed over time? Or has that been pretty consistent that tourism has been a top sector for Osceola County?

John Newstreet: I've been in this role for 10 years, so it's easily carried the wait for those 10 years. I would say probably goes back to maybe even the 80s. Disney came in 1971. So probably not in the early 70s, as they were putting their footprint down, but at some point, 80s, 90s, early 2000s, I'm sure tourism has been the breadwinner for that long. It's a great industry and it's important to to Osceola County as well. We don't want to see it go away. We want to continue to work with it to create greater opportunity.

Talia Blake: Speaking of it going away. Were there any concerns, amidst the whole Disney versus DeSantis thing? Were there any concerns from the chamber when it comes to how that might impact the economy here?

John Newstreet: Again, we monitor those things. Try not to interfere. So Disney and the governor have their dynamic at play. And so we monitor but yeah, I'd say there was a concern in the local market as to how that played out and what the impacts were. I don't think it's over yet, so we're still monitoring, still watching.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to Central Florida Public Media. She is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with degrees in both Broadcast Journalism and Psychology. While at UCF, she was an intern for Central Florida’s public affairs show, Intersection. She joined on as Morning Edition Host in 2019. In 2022, Ms. Blake was appointed to the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalist’s board of directors.
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