The Taylors came to Orlando 20 years ago in search of work and a good place to raise a family. Carla and Jeff built a house in College Park and enjoyed life as their daughter grew up while involved in school, sports and church. The Taylors' story, though, may not have a happy ending. They are selling the home they love, their daughter may have to leave her friends, and Jeff is often away from his family for extended periods of time, forced to find work outside the state.
The industry that used to provide Carla and Jeff with the ability to build the kind of lifestyle they worked hard for was the film and digital media industry. For more than 30 years, it's been a positive and powerful driver of Florida's (and certainly Orlando's) economy with an estimated 15-to-1 return on investment to the state's gross domestic product and a projected $4.1 billion positive impact to the economy from 2010 to 2016, according to the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
But all of this is now in jeopardy of being lost to competitor states that are offering something Florida currently doesn't — a funded film and entertainment tax-credit program.
Florida was once known as "Hollywood East." Established professionals in the state, earning above-average annual salaries for highly skilled work, built an industry and the infrastructure necessary to support it. That infrastructure included high-tech educational programs and billions of dollars in soundstages, motion-capture studios, equipment and support services.
Orlando is quickly losing its talent and production powerhouses as 37 other states, which haven't spent years building an industry from the ground up, gain ground in attracting this important industry — simply by offering the program to attract film and digital-media productions.
Some of these states — Georgia in particular — understand the importance and the enormous economic impact so they're heavily recruiting our professionals — people like Jeff — who can provide the talent and expertise they are lacking in their work force.
A majority of that talent is trained in Orlando's top-notch, higher-education film and digital-media institutions, including world-renowned Full Sail University, the University of Central Florida, Valencia College and the DAVE School. Graduates used to get their degrees and then get to work in local production. Now, they're heading right to competing states like Louisiana and Texas.
Legislation that combines our existing infrastructure and talent with a conservative, performance-based tax-credit program can ensure we retain this important industry, as well as grow, expand and bring back lost companies and local crew members who have already left the state. The film and entertainment tax-credit program would come with a stringent structure that makes sense for the industry, the taxpayer and the state of Florida by creating jobs, requiring projects hire locally and spend every dollar here.
It's only after the state can verify that the local work force was hired and the funds were spent in the state that the tax credit is issued. If the company is not local to Florida, then the tax credit is sold to a Florida entity at a discount so the money remains in the state and is re-invested in Florida's economy.
Of course, there have been film and entertainment incentive programs that did not work — in states like Michigan and North Carolina — because they lacked the infrastructure we are so fortunate to have. Florida, and particularly Orlando, can and should be one of the busiest film and digital-media production centers in the United States, but we must level the playing field and return the film and entertainment tax-credit program so our industry — and talented professionals like Jeff and Carla — never have to leave for states that offer incentives — taking their talent, business, buying power and their families with them.
Sheena Fowler leads the Orlando Film Commission — a division of the Orlando Economic Development Commission, where she serves as director of business development.