While still far from robust, the economy in Hernando County continued to make small gains during the first half of 2011.
Unemployment figures ticked downward slightly. The once-frozen housing market continued its slow thaw. And more companies continued to find Hernando an attractive place to do business.
With the county's unemployment rate still hovering just below 13 percent, any ray of sunshine is welcome, said county business development director Mike McHugh. As the area slowly climbs out of the recession, McHugh continues to see bright spots that he finds encouraging.
As time has gone along, McHugh has learned to gauge the future by what the business climate has shown him in the past. The past six months, he said, gave him cause to view the county with "cautious optimism."
For instance, small manufacturers Accuform Signs and Micro Matic USA, both of which are in the county's Airport Industrial Park, are still on track with plans for expansion. McHugh said he continues to see more and more interest from others that want to relocate to the area.
That's something businesses wouldn't do if economic clouds still loomed on the horizon.
"Although we're still seeing plenty of positive signs, there's still some hesitancy over how well the overall economy does in the coming months," McHugh said. "If they're comfortable with the climate, they will be hiring."
McHugh said he sees positive indicators in other areas as well, and cites the medical corridor along State Road 50 as an example.
Work is under way on a $50 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion at Oak Hill Hospital that hospital officials announced in December. Eight operating rooms, 36 private rooms and 18 beds in the post-anesthesia care unit are being added.
The project not only promises a boost to the county's beleaguered construction industry, with an estimated 600 jobs; it also will add 70 hospital staff positions when completed.
"Over time, we're going to be reaping a lot more benefits as more medical-related businesses are attracted to the area," McHugh said. "Those are good-paying, high-tech jobs, the kind we would love to see more of."
With the county's real estate scene, things are more dicey. The sale of single-family homes continues to be fueled mainly by foreclosures and short sales.
In 2009, the county listed 3,322 foreclosures. So far this year, there have been 527, which according to Hernando County Association of Realtors president Laurie Neiman signals that the market is stabilizing.
According to figures provided by the Realtors association, 1,502 single-family homes were purchased in Hernando between January and June. The median home price was about $80,000. Although 50 percent of those sales were foreclosures and short sales, the county's inventory of 2,000 unsold homes is roughly the same as it was during the housing boom, Neiman said.
"As that inventory dwindles, home prices should go up," Neiman said. "The market will probably never be like it was during the boom, but it should come back strong."
Sue Benson, a marketing agent with RE/MAX realty in Spring Hill, said she has had no problem selling homes that are properly priced.
"If sellers are willing to be realistic, then there's really no shortage of buyers," Benson said. "Cash is still king when it comes to real estate."
While sales of existing home sales are rebounding, the same can't be said for new home construction. Once the county's major economic growth engine, construction peaked in 2005, when 4,185 permits were issued for single-family homes.
Just 199 permits were pulled last year, according to the Hernando County Development Department. Figures show that only 64 permits were issued between January and June of this year, about a 32 percent decline from 94 during the same period a year ago.
Hernando Builders Association vice president Chris Glover believes that the banking industry is still skittish with financing new home construction.
"I don't think it's a question of people not wanting to build homes," said Glover, whose company, Palmwood Builders, builds custom homes. "But if you can't put down a lot of your own money — 50 percent in some cases — it's difficult to find a bank that will. It just says that it's going to be a long haul back."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.