Economist predicts strong 2015 in Manatee County

MANATEE -- Manatee County can expect to see big population gains in the next few years as its housing market slowly improves.

At the same time, according to one of the state's leading economists, the area's economy will grow best if economic development officials favor growing tourism over manufacturing and the technology sector.

Speaking at the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.'s annual Economic Forecast Breakfast Thursday, Orlando economist Henry Fishkind predicted that final population counts will show that Manatee County grew by 10,000 residents in 2014. That growth was a precursor to a 2015 that will be the best year the economy has seen in a generation, he said.

Pointing to more than 200,000 jobs created in Florida this year and improvements in the housing and tourism markets, Fishkind said the state's economy will have the best year of the current economic cycle in 2015. Job growth in the state and Manatee County is accelerating. Smaller gains in housing prices than the rest of the nation are bringing more homebuyers to Florida to take advantage of profits made on homes sold elsewhere.

"This is a prescription for rapid growth in Florida," Fishkind said during his hour-long talk in front of a crowd of several hundred at Manatee Technical Institute. "We're seeing the strongest job growth since 1999."

He predicted the state will see another 230,000 jobs added this year as 350,000 people move to the state. Housing starts will be up as well, he said, exceeding 125,000.

Calling out Manatee and Collier counties as having the strongest economies in southwest Florida, Fishkind said growth will come across all economic sectors. He was particularly optimistic about tourism and retail, but cautioned that high-wage manufacturing and technology jobs may not grow quickly in the area. The EDC focuses much of its business recruiting efforts on businesses in these arenas.

"The recruiting game is difficult and very, very ex

pensive," he said. "This area is not known as a high technology hub."

Even so, Fiskind estimates about 7,000 new jobs will be created in Manatee County in 2015. That job growth will contribute to another jump in population, which is expected to grow by approximately 11,000 people.

One of Manatee County's go-to industries, new home construction, will do better in 2015, but won't hit the boom-time volumes it saw in the mid-2000s. Fishkind said more young households are choosing to rent or put their money into less-expensive existing houses.

Still, data Fishkind prepared for Thursday's event shows home sales up across the board. He expects just more than 6,000 existing homes to sell in Manatee County in 2015, up about 1,000 over 2014. New home sales will continue to gather momentum on more than 2,000 sales. New housing starts could reach 3,500.

Commercial construction is also expected to get a boost this year, with an estimated 1.5 million square feet being built across all categories. That's up nearly 500,000 square feet over 2014. Warehouse and local retail construction are expected to be the space leaders.

Antony Mazzucca, president of Lakewood Ranch-based The Blackpoint Group and Blackpoint Realty, said he was impressed with Fiskind's knowledge of the macroeconomics affecting the national and state economy. However, he disagreed with Fishkind's optimistic assessment of the area's retail trade. Mazzucca believes many Manatee County retail businesses will close in the coming years, which will in particular prompt redevelopment of small, outdated strip malls.

"He is wrong about the growth of retail," he said. "There's an overabundance of retail here."

Bob Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, paid particular heed to what Fishkind had to say about rental housing. Bartz said young professionals and even baby boomers are looking more and more to move to rental units in downtowns and urban centers. He hopes continued improvements in the economy will give developers the courage to build more apartments in downtown Bradenton, Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch.

"What we have had is an undersupply in the rental market and even more so in the downtown rental market," he said.

Fishkind has become a regular feature at the EDC's forecast breakfast in recent years. His firm, Fishkind & Associates, provides economic forecasts and does litigation support and real estate research.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.