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County's outlook for '09 way too familiar

It's a new year, but it won't be easy for Hernando County to forget 2008.

The story of the year past is undoubtedly the crippled economy.

It's evident in a review of Hernando Times stories from 2008.

In retrospect, the stories meld to form an intriguing narrative revealing the ripple effects of the collapse of a one-dimensional economy built on the troubled construction industry.

Up close it's a personal tale, rife with stories of lost fortunes and ruined lives.

We met John W. Smith, a 68-year-old former IBM executive who was collecting unemployment payments for the first time. "Unemployment is unemployment,'' he said. "Whether you're a CEO or a person who does janitorial work, unemployment hits and it hurts.''

We met Sandra Ballard, a 12-year veteran of the construction industry who was struggling to care for her daughter. "Now that I don't have work, I get her more often," she said. "But if I don't have any money to have food in the house, then I can't have her."

And we met Rachel Hicks, a 25-year-old mother of two, whose husband recently lost his job and moved to Jacksonville to find work. He comes home one day a week to see his family.

When knit together, the individual stories combine to reveal a year that began with gloom and ended closer to doom.

In January, a prosperous year that just ended for local financiers quickly dissolved as stock markets worldwide began to implode and local financial advisors rushed to calm frighten investors. "Some people want to move out of their investments," one local adviser said, "but they should stay put."

The next month, the panic took a tangible turn when reports put Hernando County's December jobless rate at 6.6 percent, the second highest in the state.

At the time, the chief of the regional job board made this remark: "It's not all-time highs. But it's certainly significant."

Later in February, local economic development boosters touted the 1.4-million square feet of available commercial space in development stages as an indication of the county's still-active construction industry and strong retail-based economy.

In March, the unemployment rate again took center stage as it rose to 7 percent with the naysayers predicting no relief in sight.

Without regular paychecks, area residents took all measures to get cash. The owner of Nature Coast Goldsmith described a new gold rush as people began selling anything of value.

The portion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches jumped in March compared with the previous year, representing one of the largest boosts in Florida.

In April, local nonprofit groups aiming to help the neediest grew worried. A food pantry reported donations falling by 50 percent.

The government reported that the number of county households receiving food stamps grew by 58 percent in May compared to the same period last year. It was the second-highest increase in the state.

The souring economy dominated all discussions, but it was not until July that county leaders received an official verdict of sorts: An economist declared that Hernando County is in a recession. "We're going to have to do less with less," he said.

On a positive note, he pronounced — prematurely, it turned out — that the housing slump had hit bottom.

By late July, the economy was factoring in all facets of life — and death. County officials reported that the number of unclaimed bodies had grown by 30 percent, forcing the county to raise its budget for providing indigent burials.

The month of August brought a hint of good news: a job fair. But it, too, turned grim when 500 people showed up to compete for 150 jobs at the new Kohl's department store. At this point, the county's unemployment loomed large at 7.5 percent.

In September, the falling economy claimed more victims. County budget cuts meant shorter library hours. Pawnshops reported brisk business as families cashed in heirlooms and valuables. Businesses, including a popular Christian bookstore, shut down. And even the cattleman's association annual rodeo, a longtime local tradition, was canceled.

The month represented a peak in the number of foreclosures, topping 330 a month and ranking near the top in the state.

By October, county commissioners offered to throw thousands of dollars in incentives at any company willing to create new jobs that paid at least $13.29 an hour.

Weeks later, weary after an election season that focused on demands to cut the budget and taxes, county commissioners balked at even routine expenses, such as a $27,000 proposal for new office furniture. They directed staffers instead to "go on a scavenger hunt'' of county offices. With fewer county employees now, the feeling was, there should be unused equipment available.

Perhaps they should have visited local thrift stores, consignment shops and yard sales, all of which saw new life in this period.

By the holidays, the retail industry that has served as a pillar of the county economy, faltered further with more stores going out of business. Vacant retail space now dots the county.

This development came amid the release of the county's October jobless numbers, which reached a 15-year high. At the end of the year, one in every 10 Hernando County residents was without a job, state figures showed.

What happens in 2009 is anyone's guess. But here in Hernando, residents hope it won't get any worse.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

County's outlook for '09 way too familiar 12/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 2:42pm]
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