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Despite BP oil spill, five game changers that will boost Florida's economy

Weep as we may over the devastating BP oil spill and this long recession, there are still reasons to celebrate the state economy.

Here are five genuine game changers that mean big boosts for the Florida business world.

1. Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I hear those snorts of disbelief — not another tourist attraction — but the Harry Potter franchise is a global phenomenon opening June 18 only at Universal Orlando. This is a major injection of creativity aided by investments of almost $400 million. It prompted the Orlando Sentinel recently to run this headline: Can new Harry Potter attraction put Universal on par with Disney as a vacation destination? Even asking the question shows the potential of Potter.

2. Next-generation NASA. Space Exploration Technologies Inc., or SpaceX for short, is one of the companies at the center of President Barack Obama's new plan for NASA. On Friday, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in a nearly flawless test flight. The goal is for the new rocket to take cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. What's different? SpaceX is a private California business controlled by space entrepreneur Elon Musk, whose fortune was made as co-founder of PayPal. Obama has asked Congress to fund commercial manned flights; SpaceX likely will be a big player.

3. Wind and solar innovator. Its solar photovoltaic plant in DeSoto County is the largest in the country at 25 megawatts, and its 75-megawatt solar thermal plant — a hybrid, backed up by natural gas to maintain electricity output — under way with 1,000 workers in Martin County is larger still. Add a bunch of wind farms generating electricity in breezy spots nationwide (largest is Horse Hollow in Texas at 735.5 megawatts) and you have a major provider of alternative and renewable energy based in Florida. The company is Next-Era Energy, which used to be known as FPL Group. It remains the Juno Beach parent company of Florida Power & Light.

4. Legoland Florida. It's opening the largest Legoland anywhere on the Winter Haven grounds of the old Cypress Gardens attraction. And it's got a lot more financial muscle behind it than the leaner efforts in the past decade to rehab the defunct flowers-with-water-skiing attraction. Legoland Florida is the second theme park in the United States (after one north of San Diego in California) created by Danish plastic brick maker and global toy phenom Lego Co. The Florida park opens in the fall of 2011. Did you know the bricks, which fade from the sun, get changed out every six years? The park will match Polk County's agriculture output at an expected $450 million a year.

5. Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. It's the first international airport to be built in the United States in more than a decade. And it's a game changer for the Florida Panhandle because a lot more tourists can arrive directly by jet. The bad news is the airport opened last month just weeks before tar balls started washing up on western portions of Panhandle beaches. The good news? Without the airport, the flow of tourism would be a lot weaker. Long term, it will prove a major economic plus.

So, five new economic engines for Florida that will outlast BP's spill. Take heart.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Despite BP oil spill, five game changers that will boost Florida's economy 06/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 8:16am]

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