Editor’s Note: This is the 11th in a series of 24 articles published by The Apopka Voice in 2017 that were among the most noteworthy. We will post all of them from December 26th and December 31st. Then on Monday, January 1st we will poll our readers and let them decide which is Apopka’s biggest story of 2017.
Story #11: Robert Agrusa brings intensity, optimism, and politics to the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce
First Published October 10th, 2017
By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Robert Agrusa means business. The former Executive Director of BusinessForce in Orlando was recently named President of the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce. Now he wants to make Apopka business a force in Central Florida.
Agrusa was chosen after a comprehensive search that included nearly 200 applicants. And during the search, he quickly grew fond of the community.
“The people I met during the interview process just made me love Apopka even more…every step of the way,” said Agrusa. I’m motivated to be here and ready to hit the ground running.”
And the ground he sees is fertile and ready to flourish.
“I knew that Apopka was the next big thing in Central Florida because of the land space that was available out here, and all of the opportunity. They’ve been preparing for the potential new growth – with our roadways and our water. We’re preparing for growth over the next 10 years.”
Apopka is the second largest city in Central Florida – and it’s still growing. Agrusa looks at that population surge and sees economic development.
“In 2010, the census had Apopka at 41,000 residents. As of last month, we were over 50,000. That’s nearly 10,000 people in just seven years. That is tremendous growth as we move forward. You’re seeing redevelopment in places like Winter Garden, Sanford, and Altamonte Springs, but those places are basically maxed out. This is the next opportunity – right here in Apopka.”
In his role at BusinessForce, (the political action arm of the Orlando Economic Partnership), Agrusa represented thousands of businesses and their tens of thousands of employees and was directly responsible for advancing the business community’s agenda through public policy advocacy and supporting business-friendly candidates for Florida’s most significant regional PAC.
Now as president of the chamber, Agrusa wants to ignite business in Apopka in a similar fashion – as a business leader and an advocate.
“I was looking at another phase in my life where I could go and lead a community and move away from the political aspects of what I’ve been doing for the last several years. I’m very good at what I did there, but now I’m looking at how to give back to a community and be a champion of a community… and this opportunity came up.”
Agrusa may be moving away from full-time politics, but that doesn’t mean he won’t fuse politics into his role with the chamber.
“All politics are local. There are a lot of issues that we will need to be engaged in politically. And when I say politically I mean as an advocacy arm. So we will need to be a champion for our business community whether there are issues at the city, state or federal level. But if there are regulations or certain taxes that are burdening our businesses or certain things our businesses need, that’s what the chamber should be advocating for.”
One of his first initiatives at the chamber will be to bring local legislators together for an event that gives the business community a voice to those elected officials that represent them before they begin their session in Tallahassee.
It’s called a Legislative Preview, but it could be named a Legislative pre-emptive strike.
“The idea is to talk to legislators before they go to session to say ‘here are the things we’re concerned with.’ Make sure the things you are voting for help the businesses and residents back home. Because if it doesn’t, you shouldn’t support it. A lot of times chambers forget to do things prior to a session, and then they get upset about decisions made… so this is being pro-active, and that’s what a chamber should do. I’m excited to lead this effort.”
The event is October 17th from 8-9 AM at the Highland Manor. Senator Randolph Bracy, and Representatives Kamia Brown, Bob Cortes, and Jennifer Sullivan are scheduled to attend.
Agrusa moved to Central Florida in 2011 to serve as the chief political liaison between Senator Andy Gardiner’s legislative office and his responsibilities as Florida Senate President Designate. In this role, Agrusa was immersed in Gardiner’s political, fundraising and campaign-related activities – including his 2014 re-election campaign and his state Political Action Committee – and built quality and key relationships between members of the business community, elected officials, and organizations from across the State of Florida.
Now he brings those connections and relationships from the political sector that stretches from Orlando to Tallahassee, to Washington DC with him to Apopka.
“That’s a great asset that I bring to the chamber. I have so many political ties not only to city, but county, our county mayor, and all of our state legislators and representatives. I have a great relationship with Rep. Val Demings. Also my relationship with the Florida and US Chamber of Commerce. In the past we haven’t been active with those organizations, and those are key components. They have much more leverage than we might have on the federal and state levels, but we can go in with them.”
With growth comes growing pains. And this is an issue Agrusa sees in Apopka and wants to take it head-on.
“We have a lot of great small businesses in Apopka. But the problem is some of these businesses who are outgrowing their size and becoming medium to large businesses, but they can’t stay here because they need more space. So we need to work with our public and private partners to try to figure out ways to utilize areas we currently haven’t and revitalize them so that they can be used for businesses and we don’t lose them to Ocoee or Winter Garden or some other community.
He sees the UCF Apopka Business Incubator as a key element and a partner in managing growth and shepherding startup businesses in the community.
“We want to work with the Incubator. They are going to be a big component for those businesses that are growing to make sure they have a home after they outgrow the Incubator. So I’m going to be working with our local and county governments so that we are addressing it.”
Agrusa’s vision for the chamber has both a short and long-term strategy. It is a transition away from an event-based approach.
“When I look at the chamber, it’s supposed to be the leading advocate for business in a community and to improve the quality of life for the residents because that’s also a key component as well. I feel like it should be a resource where all community groups can come together to work on solutions. The chamber should be that asset. Not only for a building, but everybody can collaborate, and we can work together. Whether it’s to solve affordable housing, transportation, growth, or educational issues. This is a place where we can talk and get together. That’s a chamber’s role. Less event-based and more visionary. Certainly, we’re going to do events, but our focus will be about what we are doing for our community. What are we giving back to our community? Everybody can do events, but that shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of a chamber of commerce.”
Agrusa has been in Apopka less than a month, and he already sees into its future with optimism and enthusiasm.
“These are amazing times. In five years, with all the projects happening in Apopka, I think you’ll see this place completely new. I’m looking forward to the challenge of being a big part of it.”