Manatee County's economic outlook rebounded in 2013

HERALD STAFF REPORTDecember 30, 2013 

The past year was one of milestones as Manatee County and the country began to see the benefits of a slow economic recovery. Housing prices were on the rise and worries eased as resident home values began to rise again. At the same time, residents discovered the National Flood Insurance Program may put a damper on rising home prices as flood insurance costs rose out of reach for middle-income Floridians.

]Tourism took off in 2013, so much so that some people were looking for relief from too many visitors along the islands. Manatee County officials say the payoff from a sports tourism plan several years in the making meant winning big sporting events, including two international rowing championships

and two NCAA tournaments. IMG Academy continued its expansion and brought even more events to the area.

Port Manatee also expanded its growth mission by attracting new businesses and working to expand the industries at the port.

Real estate recovery

Year-over-year median sales price increased 11 percent in Manatee County to $165,000, according to a November report released by RealtyTrac, a real estate data firm. Sales on non-distressed existing homes were up 10 percent. Sale prices on distressed or foreclosed homes were up 14 percent over the same time last November to a median of $114,000.

Sales increased throughout the year, but remained nearly flat in November, which could mean the market is becoming more balanced as investors -- typically cash buyers -- pull back and homebuyers have an opportunity to take their time house shopping. Still, Florida remains one of the top states for cash sales. Year-end sales totals will be released in January.

Flood insurance

Families and businesses across Florida and the nation didn't count on any fallout from the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act created by Congress in 2012 until now -- and it might be too late to do anything about it.

Much like the budget battle, the battle over flood insurance could have more far-reaching consequences than most realized.

Flood insurance rates threaten to change the nature of the island communities as middle-class residents are forced to move out, and those who can afford bigger, elevated houses and condos take over the properties. And as Florida's housing market is hit once again, this time with mandated flood insurance rates middle-class families can't afford, any economic recovery could plunge.

Florida, which has the most flood insurance policyholders in the nation at more than 2 million, will be particularly hard hit. Florida ranks fifth in total payments from the National Flood Insurance Program at $3.7 billion, behind Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas, according to FEMA data. Manatee County has the 10th most subsidized policies in the state -- based on estimated risk versus cost -- with 11,264, according to FEMA.

Those estimates and the structure of the program rankles Florida's elected leaders.

Florida contributes 3.6 times more than it receives from the federal flood insurance program, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes.

The study, which looked at claims from 1978 to 2008, and accounts for inflation, found Floridians paid $16.1 billion in premiums and received $4.5 billion in claim payments. Colorado had the highest ratio of policyholders paying into the program while receiving the least amount of claim reimbursements, according to FEMA. But that was before the recent devastating floods there.

It's not just beach residences that are affected. The changes will affect homes in high-risk flood zones in northwest Bradenton, those near Ware's Creek and Cedar Hammock and in low-lying areas in East Manatee. Businesses with subsidized premiums will also pay a 25 percent annual increase until the actuarial rate is reached, affecting 10,964 businesses in the state.

Tourism

Manatee County tourism recorded more than $566 million, a 10.2 percent year-over-year increase, during the first nine months of 2013, according to tourism officials,

The year started off strong when the first two months of the year generated $182 million in revenues -- a 12.3 percent jump from the same period in 2012.

Manatee County offers a "very different product" from the rest of the region, a huge draw for tourists, said Walter Klages, president and chief executive officer for Research Data Services of Tampa.

"It has been a very successful season, a very successful third quarter," Klages said earlier this year.

He predicted as European economies begin to recover from their recession, tourism numbers will strengthen in coming months. He predicted 2014 will be even stronger in terms of tourism revenues.

Job recovery

Retail, professional service and tourism job creation helped the unemployment rate drop in 2013.

In addition to the seasonal economic drivers, business and professional services added to the region's job growth.

Manatee County unemployment fell to 6.2 percent in November, down from 6.6 percent in October and 7.9 percent at the end of 2012. In Sarasota County, the unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, down from 8 percent the same time last year. In Florida, the November rate dropped to 6.4 percent, the lowest it has been since July 2008.

Sally Hill, communications director for Suncoast Workforce, said the economy is "still improving slowly," but said officials with her agency are "optimistic" as things continue to "move in the right direction."

She said Suncoast Workforce is seeing a broad range of jobs being offered to job seekers, ranging from entry level jobs to manufacturing jobs to high-skill, high-paying jobs.

Florida's unemployment rate fell to 6.4 percent in November down from 8 percent just one year ago. While at first the state touted the lower numbers to economic recovery, it has since admitted the sharp decline in unemployment is partly because of the troubled debut of the state unemployment claims website, CONNECT, which prevented some people from registering and filing claims.

Port growth

Port Manatee has had an active year as it continues to diversify port business. A move by Amazon to locate a warehouse just 10 miles away and a memorandum of understanding with an international car manufacturer piqued interest among related businesses, said port officials.

Manatee Technical Institute is already providing training for port businesses and looking to expand its offerings.

Officials at Air Products and Chemicals Inc., which is building a new manufacturing plant in Manatee County, picked its site because Port Manatee offered a "well-run and well-maintained port." The company began building earlier this year and hiring has begun. Production will begin in 2014. MTI has been working with the company to train welders.

Port Manatee signed a memorandum of understanding with Pasha Automotive Services this year. The Corte Madera, Calif.-based company exports and imports cars at seven ports around the country, including major importer/exporter Port of Baltimore. A new processing terminal in Manatee could bring between 100 and 200 jobs.

Pasha is set to take over a 174,000-square-foot warehouse as a processing center and park its cars on 45 acres, with an option to expand to 100 acres at the facility. The agreement states at least 30 acres have to be contiguous.

American cars assembled in Mexico would be imported to Port Manatee to be finished and inspected before going to dealerships. Cars could also be exported to Latin America.

In addition to import/export of vehicles, Pasha also needs workers who would install body kits and electronic packages customers order from dealerships. Those features would be installed at Port Manatee before being sent to dealerships, Pasha said.

Pasha said the port's proximity to Mexico and Cuba, rail connectivity and highway access made Manatee attractive, Pasha said, in addition to the Berth 12 expansion and container terminal set to open in October.

Port Manatee brought about 15 executives across various sectors, including top officials at Ford and Chrysler, here for a two-day event to sell the automotive industry on partnering with Pasha.

The presence of Pasha and potentially luxury sports car maker Tramontana would prompt Manatee Technical Institute to create courses to train the local workforce for jobs at Pasha and Tramontana, Buqueras said. That could lead to MTI and Port Manatee creating a Center of Automotive Excellence for training, he said.

Not all port news was good. Port Manatee plans to furlough all 54 employees one day a month after The Mosaic Co. shifted its fertilizer shipments from Port Manatee to a company-owned terminal south of Tampa. Port Manatee also terminated Robert J. Armstrong, deputy executive director and chief financial officer, after he was charged with a second-degree felony for accessory after the fact after his son, who also worked at the port, was charged with stealing port property. The son, Robert B. Armstrong, was fired for abandonment of position. Both have pleaded not guilty.

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