Construction in Manatee County shows looking up

MANATEE -- The southern states -- Florida and Texas in particular -- are leading the country in the amount of new commercial construction under contract that has yet to be completed.

Although most of the U.S. continues to see weakness in its building industry, new home development is on the rise in the Sunshine State -- including the Manatee-Sarasota area -- largely because of shortages in existing housing inventory.

The South recorded the highest amount of pending construction work in the nation during the first quarter of 2012, a trend fanned largely by increases in new home permit activity, which also drove a resurgence in the commercial sector, according to a new report released Tuesday.

Recent economic progress also shows home builder sentiment has hit its highest mark since May 2007.

"The indicators show Manatee-Sarasota is one of the areas of Florida moving faster than others," said Alan Anderson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Manatee-Sarasota. "We're seeing a big uptick in the market right now."

Contractors pulled 386 new single-family building permits in Manatee from Jan. 1 to April 30, a 28 percent jump from 2011 and the highest total during the same four months dating back to at least 2007, according to county records.

That trend has many local builders, including Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Commu

nities and Bradenton-based Medallion Home, breaking company records this year.

Other national players like KB Homes and DR Horton -- largely chased from the market during the housing collapse -- are increasing their land stock here, Anderson said.

Those trends have translated to a mild resurgence in commercial activity, which remains in a downturn across the country, especially the Northeast and middle states.

The U.S. construction backlog indicator in the first quarter dropped 5.4 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011, sliding to 7.4 months worth of commercial construction work under contract. That figure, however, was slightly higher than it was at this time last year, according to Associated Builders and Contractors.

The South -- which includes Florida, Texas and the Carolinas -- registered the strongest backlog at 8.88 months worth, a 0.72 month increase over a year ago, the report shows.

New commercial permits for the first quarter in Manatee have been relatively flat since 2010, records show.

"Florida is one of the primary reasons the Southeast is beating the nation," said Anirban Basu, chief economist for Associated Builders and Contractors. "A lot of new capital entering Florida is driving demand for real estate -- residential and non -- which is increasing demand for construction. The construction recovery in Florida is happening faster than many had predicted."

Commercial construction trends typically run behind residential because new homes drive demand for office, warehouse and retail space. Commercial developers also build less on speculation.

Plagued by the same foreclosures and abandonments that caused home prices to plummet, its commercial counterpart is still waiting for the distressed inventory to clear out before new building commences, said Charles Wilson, a commercial builder in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties.

But as the new home market continues to thrive, commercial is now beginning to play catchup, he said.

"What drives our economy is the construction of single-family homes -- that's what triggers all of this," Wilson said. "It's the rooftops that drive shopping centers and all of the other commercial projects. There's a lot of pieces to that puzzle that still have to come together, but there is a growing demand."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.