Orange County's bygone hopes of becoming an industry leader in microchip manufacturing are now a pile of rubble off South John Young Parkway.
Bulldozers are razing the old Agere Systems Inc. microchip factory, previously known as Cirent Semiconductor, the one-time heart of an effort by business leaders and politicians to diversify the local economy.
The demolition is the final chapter in the county's failed attempts to generate a semiconductor presence here. Those efforts were an early stab at the kind of industry-cluster concept now being promoted in the life-sciences field about 15 miles away, in southeast Orlando's Lake Nona area.
For Peter Panousis, former chief executive of Cirent Semiconductor, the building's demise removes any physical trace of a major life chapter. He estimates Cirent invested $1.4 billion in the building and its high-tech equipment — and employed nearly 2,000 people when he retired less than a decade ago.
"I'm a little disappointed that they're tearing it down," said Panousis, now dean of the University of Central Florida's College of Sciences. "It may be the land is worth more than the building. … I retired in 2001; at the time it was unquestionably the most sophisticated manufacturing facility probably in the state of Florida."
Coincidentally, the property's current owner is Tavistock Group, the private, locally based investment firm controlled by British billionaire Joe Lewis. Tavistock also owns Lake Nona and the developing "medical city" there.
The Agere factory has clean-room technology and other attributes once considered top-of-the-line, but now the land beneath it is more marketable as a clean slate.
"We are going to redevelop the site to make it attractive for more uses/users," Doug McMahon, managing director at Tavistock Group, said in an e-mail. "The inherited clean-room facilities were dated and do not fit our plans."
He said the site is a "work in progress" but "we are moving ahead and removing the old buildings on the property."
When Tavistock purchased the 206 acres in 2007 for about $50 million, the company considered a partnership with architect C.T. Hsu to create a design-industry center. McMahon said Hsu's concept has not been discarded, but Tavistock continues to explore uses for the property.
State and local officials pumped public dollars and incentives worth more than $40 million into the plant, mostly during the 1990s, when it threatened to move to Spain. It chose to remain in Orlando but just a few years later, in 2002, announced it was leaving town. The building was ultimately shuttered in 2005, by which time the microchip industry had largely shifted to Asia.
The factory remains the county's biggest economic-development disappointment.
"We tried very hard to attract other companies to this area to establish a center for microelectronics," Panousis said. "There was a period of time when it looked like the 'medical city' land could have become a center for manufacturing. It didn't quite work out."
The Agere plot line could give rise to a cautionary tale for Lake Nona. But Panousis noted that the "medical city" has already attracted more than one operation. Taxpayers have a stake in UCF's new medical school, a veteran's hospital, and an East Coast outpost for the California-based Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. A Nemours Children's Hospital is also under construction.
"It did something we weren't able to pull off," Panousis said. "We failed with the semiconductor industry in not attracting another company."
The old chip plant's demolition prompted him to reflect on what the once-state-of-the-art building set in motion.
"It created an awakening, if you will, of the potential for high-tech industry to help the local economy," Panousis said.
Beth Kassab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.
More than two decades ago, business leaders and politicians had high hopes for this microchip plant in south Orlando, Here are several stories about the plant over the years: