When Florida economist Hank Fishkind addressed several hundred Manatee County business and community leaders at the annual economic forecast breakfast, he painted a positive picture of growth tempered with caution about the potential of a continuing foreclosure crisis. But upward trends abound.
The state's population and employment have been increasing since 2011, and Manatee County should continue growth in both at least through 2015, Fishkind projected. Over the past year, Manatee logged a 1.6 percent increase in job growth, which helped propel the metropolitan statistic area of Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties to one of the top performing regions in the state. New jobless claims continue to fall, too.
Sales of new and existing homes are rising along with prices, and residential construction activity is on the upswing. Fishkind also told the gathering, sponsored by the Bradenton-Area Economic Development Corp., that commercial construction will accelerate through the next two years.
Recent news accounts put specifics to his bright economic forecast.
The Sunshine State enjoyed a record year in the tourism industry in 2012, up 2.3 percent to an estimated 89.3 million. That figure surpasses the previous record, in 2011, by 2 million additional visitors. Travel-related jobs also rose to a record level, to 1,030,600.
Manatee County bested the state growth rate with tourism up 9.3 percent with 537,900 visitors. Their spending jumped to $364 million with an overall economic impact of $575 million., according to a report consultant Walter Klages delivered last week to the Manatee County Tourism Development Council.
A Florida Realtors report issued last week showed the Manatee-Sarasota market logged an impressive year in 2012 with single-family home sales jumping 14.4 percent and condo and townhomes sales topping that with a 15.4 percent increase. Prices are rebounding, too, with homes up 12 percent to a median price of $168,000 and condos up 8.4 percent to $136,000. More than 17,000 homes and condos sold last year.
The report cited Lakewood Ranch and the Manatee portion of Longboat Key as the strongest markets.
Lakewood Ranch again won recognition as one of top 10 best-selling master-planned communities in the nation, ranking No. 8 in one survey and No. 9 in another. Home sales in 2012 rose sharply from the previous year, from 391 to 573. Demand is so strong only 1.39 percent of Lakewood Ranch's 8,000 existing homes are on the market.
Both Neal Communities and Lee Wetherington Homes put up record homes sales in 2012 -- both up by 50 percent -- and expectations are high for this year. Neal Communities already set a company record for January with 71 new homes sold in neighborhoods from Parrish to Englewood with Central Park in Lakewood Ranch the most popular. Pat Neal, the company's president and chief executive, expects "a very strong winter/spring season for 2013," too.
Manatee County automobile dealerships are also enjoying a boom in sales and expect that to continue. From the manufacturing, service, health and leisure industries, all types of businesses are hiring and growing.
One possible trouble spot could be foreclosures increasing and slowing the recovery of the housing market. Almost 20 percent of the homes in Manatee and Sarasota counties are exhibiting some mortgage distress -- from delinquent loans to foreclosure cases. Statewide, the figure is closer to 10 percent.
The Herald's senior business reporter, Stephen Frater, took an in-depth look at this looming situation on Sunday with Florida facing a "murky future ... raising concerns that a tsunami of bank sales could increase inventory, depress prices and lengthen closing times for residential sales in 2013 or even longer."
John Tuccillo, the chief economist for Florida Realtors, told Frater that view is "overly pessimistic," though he did admit a threat exists.
In January, one Manatee real estate agent commented more foreclosures being put on the market would actually be helpful as buyers are waiting for more inventory. The current supply is low, and Manatee-Sarasota is on a list of best places to buy foreclosed properties in the country this year, ranking 25th. Investors are snapping up homes as soon as they enter the market, and foreclosure sales represent 24 percent of all sales -- a big figure, to be sure, and a troublesome one.
The region appears poised to withstand a big influx of foreclosures, should that occur. With all the other positive signs pointing to an expanding economy, we're remain optimistic about the region's future.