Ed Poppell: Planting the Seed for Gainesville’s Future
Ed Poppell isn’t running for public office, but he is campaigning for the city of Gainesville every single day on America’s economic playing field. As one of the dreamers of Innovation Square, Poppell’s mission is to make Gainesville a destination for the best and brightest start-ups in America, and to make Gainesville a better place to live, work and play.
Ed Poppell never wanted to be a farmer, but now he’s devoted his life to helping Gainesville grow. While he does love to garden, he isn’t interested in potatoes or fresh herbs. Instead, the fruit of his labor will be a community with a thriving economic landscape built for the future. If Gainesville is a piece of land ready for cultivation, then Ed Poppell is the guy you want on the job.
After 43 years in this town, he’s experienced the allure of North Central Florida first hand, partly because Gainesville is a place he really never intended to be his home. The town has that “come for the food, stay for the pie” mentality you might use to describe a roadside diner. Most come for the University of Florida, but stay for a small, tight-knit community, the burgeoning art and music scene, the quaint downtown, the food, the excellent healthcare, the climate and the ever intangible spirit that you can only know by living here. Well, after Poppell graduated from Florida State University he came to Gainesville in 1971 to take a job with the University of Florida, claiming he ‘didn’t know what was gonna happen.’ He’s been here ever since, working his way up through administrative jobs at the university, with his career culminating as Vice President of Business Affairs and Economic Development. It’s the kind of career he said started with an early promotion and ‘went from there.’
“I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer like my dad, I knew I wanted something a little bit different like business,” Poppell said. “I saw how difficult it could be to run a farm so I knew I wanted to get involved with part of a larger corporate structure, and I was lucky enough to find that in Gainesville.”
By the time Poppell retired in 2011, he had his fingerprints all over the University of Florida, from the development of the UF East Campus, to campus-wide energy efficiency, increased student use of the Regional Transit System, an IT system which eased student financial aid and bill pay, and an accredited University Police Department. Most would call that a phenomenal career, punch their time card and go hunt, or fish, or golf, or do whatever it is that a man in his early 60s with nothing but time would want to do. Not Ed Poppell.
There’s always a bigger plan in the works. Maybe that thought process comes from his church, Trinity United Methodist, which he attends every Sunday, the same church where he met his wife Sharron, now a retired teacher who Ed says is ‘naturally kind and easy going.’ Maybe it comes from his childhood in Havana, Florida, a small town 16 miles outside of Tallahassee, on a poultry farm his father owned where ‘anyone under my father’s roof worked seven days a week’ and ‘the work was never done.’
In Poppell’s case, the bigger plan today is Innovation Square, a development in the former Shands at AGH site and the 40 surrounding acres intended to facilitate and house companies that want to root their business in Gainesville. For success, an endeavor of this size and scope needs a group of people who are willing to put in the daily effort it takes to size up with the rest of the country when it comes to economic competition. For a guy who’s a self-described type-B personality who loves woodworking, cycling, gardening and golf, you can sense that underneath his calm, inviting exterior, there’s a passion to elevate Gainesville.
“I think we have to remember that economic development is an everyday activity,” Poppell said. “You’re not only competing for the new companies, but you’re competing to keep the companies you already have.”
For years, the struggle amongst graduates in Gainesville was to find a career in the town they grew to love during their tenure. In many ways, the struggle continues. As Innovation Square develops, the job market for graduates and professionals will offer more opportunities in a variety of industries, Poppell said.
“We want this [Gainesville] to be a destination for a career, not just a destination for a degree,” Poppell said. “There’s too many instances where kids would love to stay, but they leave to pursue their careers and spend their whole lives trying to come back.”
Ideally, Poppell sees the future Gainesville as an environment that produced a life similar to his. He built a career here. He built a family here. He built a life here. His son, Adam, who is now 30 and lives in Clearwater, comes back home quite often.
The companies out there looking for prospective headquarters are very thorough in their research of Gainesville. They aren’t just looking for a cool place; their search is deep and all encompassing, he said. They’re looking at everything. What will they be able to guarantee their employees?” Poppell said. “They’re looking at our school systems for their children, our political structure, our parks, our landscape, our food, our culture, our cost of living. A lot of times people representing a prospective company know more about Gainesville than the people who live here.”
What’s at stake in this competition for economic development? A rising skyline in downtown Gainesville, thousands of new jobs, a direct connection between our economy and University of Florida, a growing urban area better suited for pedestrian traffic, and an economy that not only lures new talent, but retains the best of what Gainesville already has to offer, Poppell said. Typically the influx of thousands of jobs and larger, more broadbased companies in an area like Gainesville would mean good things for Alachua County as a whole. Towns like Jonesville, Newberry and Alachua could all see the benefit from increased economic activity in the region. Currently, there are many potential companies slotted to take root in Innovation Square in the information technology, health care and engineering industries. It’s a broad collection that will bring a diverse new job market to the area.
When Poppell speaks, you can hear the sense of pride in his voice. His normal mid-tempo drawl quickens. The volume of his voice rises. The thoughts come quickly from his brain, like they’ve been stockpiled, discussed and dreamed for ages. It’s refreshing to have such an individual as Gainesville’s unofficial ambassador. And as Poppell said himself, Gainesville is an easy sell.
“For me, my work has always been simple; leave it better than you found it,” he said. “That would be my hope, that we planted a seed.”