Common Place   /   May 29, 2014

Is Orlando more than just a tourist destination? An interview with Phil Hissom

Stephen Assink

Phil Hissom, photo courtesy Polis Institute

Phil Hissom is founder and president of Polis Institute, a research and education non-profit based in Orlando, Florida, that focuses on improving between organizations and their constituents. He received his Master of Divinity degree in 2009 from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.

Q: As part of the Institute for Advanced Cities in Culture’s Thriving Cities Project you've been asked to write a city profile for Orlando. How has your work with the Polis Institute given you a perspective on Orlando that you have been able to bring to your work on the TCP profile?

Polis has been actively researching Central Florida since 2006, particularly with regard to how well we are addressing poverty in our community. The work has put us in close contact with a wide range of constituents across all sectors as we work together to incorporate best practices to help our most vulnerable neighbors. This has been invaluable experience and has given us an informed perspective from which to contribute to Thriving Cities.

Q: Do you think Orlando is a thriving city?

Yes, generally speaking, I do think Orlando is a thriving city. Our population has more than quadrupled in the last 40 years. And while we have struggled at times to keep pace with this tremendous growth and to address certain social issues like homelessness, we demonstrate a willingness to course correct, work together, and try new things. These are certainly important aspects of a thriving city.  

Q: Orlando is consistently one of the country’s top travel destinations because of the Disney parks and other attractions. What impact has this had on the city and how its citizens think about their community?

As the most visited resort in the world and by far the region’s largest employer, the influence of Walt Disney World (WDW) can hardly be overstated. Many locals don’t feel a strong connection to WDW and other tourist destinations and some even resent how strongly outsiders equate Orlando with its theme parks. This has contributed to our somewhat muddled sense of identity and speaks to one of our current challenges—who are we as a city and who do we really want to be?

Q: Much has been made of Orlando’s development plans for Church Street. Do you think this could significantly strengthen Orlando and address any of the city’s long-standing issues?

The development plans along Church Street include more than a billion dollars of investment in sports and cultural venues. Most of the development goes through a historically poor and African-American community. So while the investment could be leveraged to bring real benefit to the residents—and there are plans to do just that—critics argue that this will simply be the next injustice. Time will tell which prevails.

Q: What would you say is one of Orlando’s greatest strengths that, if used wisely, could enable it to thrive over the next decade?

Orlando is hopeful. We build world class venues, destinations, universities, and businesses. We work hard to address our pressing social issues. We believe our efforts will succeed. If we employ our hope wisely, this success will not only come to fruition but also will mean success for people from all walks of life. We will thrive.  

Phil Hissom, photo courtesy Polis Institute

To learn more about Phil and the work of the Polis Institute, visit their website at