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Florida's unemployment extremes share an uphill battle

On the surface, Liberty County in Florida's Panhandle and Hendry County in South Florida have plenty in common. They are rural with small populations. But Liberty's unemployment rate is 5.3 percent while Hendry's is 16.8 percent — 11.5 percentage points higher.

Why the astounding difference?

To answer that question, we looked at the five Florida counties with the lowest jobless rates and the five with the highest. They stretch from Destin to Key West. What emerges are snapshots of an enormously challenged but resilient Florida and perhaps some important lessons for the entire state.

First, riding the real estate and construction boom while failing to diversify is a sure ticket to desperate times. Second, agriculture products from oysters, shrimp and citrus to potatoes, sugar and vegetables remain a hugely important slice of the state economy. Third, alternative energy and biomass plants are cropping up surprisingly often across the state though their sources of fuel vary widely.

And fourth, every last person I interviewed demonstrated a "we shall get through this downturn and we shall prosper" attitude that speaks well for Floridians and should bolster the confidence in our state economy — including Tampa Bay, which is wrestling with its own 11.7 jobless rate.

Turn to Page 6D to see how 10 very different counties are coping in this economy.

Counties with highest unemployment:

Hendry

The highest unemployment rate (16.8 percent) among Florida's 67 counties is one bragging right that interim county economic development director Ron Zimmerly would gladly skip. Hendry is seriously dependent on agriculture, from citrus and sugar cane to cattle and row crops. Citrus is fighting two attacks — canker and greening — while the sugar business was upended by the on-again, off-again deal by the South Florida Water Management District to buy a vast land tract from U.S. Sugar in Clewiston.

If the deal goes through, look at 1,100 more lost jobs and the end of as many as 20,000 indirect jobs, Zimmerly said. But Hendry's got some options. Alternative energy firm Southeast Renewables signed a deal to produce ethanol from sweet sorghum to generate electricity for Tampa's Seminole Electric Cooperative. And Hendry is competing to build an intermodal/logistics center that would service the Port of Palm Beach.

"That could possibly be a perfect replacement for our lost U.S. Sugar jobs," reasons Zimmerly. He puts Hendry's chances at "better than 50-50."

Flagler

Doug Baxter's friendly Australian accent can take only so much of the rough edge off a 16.2 percent unemployment rate. That's 5,068 lost jobs. The county chamber of commerce chief has close ties to New York and New Jersey folks who want to retire to Flagler but can't sell their homes up North. Flagler's biggest town, 75,000-strong Palm Coast, is only 10 years old and focused much of its retiree marketing on those two Northeast states way up Interstate 95.

"We put all our eggs in one basket — housing," Baxter says. The "good news" is Flagler home prices have dropped so much that some folks up North can now afford them without first selling their first homes.

Go west in Flagler, away from the Atlantic beaches (where Flagler tourism is down 18 percent), for an agriculture surprise. Flagler's got big potato farms, with almost all the harvest going to Lay's for potato chips. Mother Nature mashed this year's potato crop with close to 30 inches of rain. Says Baxter: "We're resilient."

St. Lucie

It boomed in the post-2004 clean-up of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne but became addicted to construction jobs; bad news when housing tanked, sending the county unemployment rate to 15.3 percent. But Linda Cox, county chamber of commerce CEO, has a new mantra: diversify. And she has proof it's working.

"Biotech cluster." If there are two words more alluring to modern Florida economic developers, I have yet to hear them. Just as Scripps Research put its much touted Florida facility in Palm Beach County to the south, St. Lucie lured Torrey Pines Institute, which begat the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute which begat the Mann Foundation building a biotech facility just to capture the likely spinoffs from the first two research firms.

Add in call centers for QVC and Liberty Medial, and St. Lucie counts 2,500 jobs in its pipeline in the coming years. Just don't ask about construction. "Nobody's building much of anything right now," Cox says. "I don't know if we've hit bottom, but I hope what we see now is it."

Indian River

Economic development director Helene Caseltine explains a daunting 15.2 percent jobless rate by saying citrus, tourism, construction and real estate are no longer enough horsepower.

Like St. Lucie County to the south on I-95, Indian River is keen on grabbing a piece of the biotech promise. When Scripps Research first came to the state five years ago searching for locations, the quartet of St. Lucie, Indian River, Martin and Okeechobee counties united to brand themselves the "Research Coast." St. Lucie's a big winner so far, but Caseltine hopes Indian River can attract spinoffs. The county's big win recently is defensive. After decades in Vero Beach, Piper Aircraft, the county's biggest private employer, considered relocation. A full-court press kept it happy where it is. Ahead, the most promising project may be a biomass plant that will burn trash, due by early 2010.

Economic development, she says, is extremely competitive. "We're not competing with Alachua or Escambia counties but Ireland and Vietnam."

Lee County

The largest among the 10 counties considered in this economic series and the home of Fort Myers and housing-ravaged Cape Coral, Lee is bracing for a long-term recovery. The county's unemployment rate of 13.9 percent is well below Hendry and Flagler, but because this is a higher-population county, those who are without jobs make up a big number.

Gary Jackson, Florida Gulf Coast University economics professor and director of the Regional Economic Research Institute in Fort Myers, closely tracks Lee County economic trends. The intensity of southwest Florida's boom times — no other part of Florida roared so hot — contributed to the severity of overabundant housing, foreclosures and short sales. Tourism is down, too, though the coming winter season should give a seasonal boost to the area at least until the snowbirds leave.

"Right now people understand the recession is over, but it will be a long and gradual recovery," Jackson says. "That is a concern to folks."

Counties with lowest unemployment:

Liberty

How can such a rural county southwest of Tallahassee boast a 5.3 percent unemployment rate — less than a third that of Hendry or Flagler counties — in such a recession? Mother Nature provides. Apalachicola National Forest covers half of Liberty and "wood" drives much of its economy. That ranges from a Georgia Pacific mill making a plywood substitute called "oriented strand board" to a biomass plant that generates 14 megawatts of electricity and promises more to come. Liberty's big employer, though, is a state prison.

A born-and-bred Liberty man, 77-year-old Johnny Eubanks is both chamber chief and publisher of the Calhoun Liberty Journal. The weekly newspaper's unusual challenge is reporting on Liberty, in the eastern time zone, and Calhoun County next door in the central time zone.

"Nearly everyone in Liberty that wants a job has a job," Eubanks says. "There may be a few that want a better job. But if they want to go to work, they can find themselves a job."

Walton

Bill Arnett used to pitch business on struggling eastern Ohio. So he's in heaven now that he's spent the last four months directing this Panhandle county's economic development alliance. With only 6.8 percent unemployed — more than 4 percentage points below Florida's state average — Walton is a huge beneficiary of the defense industry. Eglin Air Force Base in nearby Okaloosa County was a winner in the Defense Department's "BRAC" (Base Realignment and Closure) commission recommendations because the 7th Special Forces, now at Fort Bragg, will relocate to Eglin in 2011.

"It's a big deal," Arnett says. Economic ripples will boost Walton as defense companies cluster near Eglin and more services handle a growing military population.

Tourism's big, too. Arnett says the coming Bay County airport nearby will bring more people. But the Midwest transplant winces when he hears of Hendry County's 16.8 percent jobless rate — the state's highest. Says Arnett: "That sounds like Ohio."

Monroe

If there's a ground zero for tourism, Monroe is it. And tourist-wise, Monroe has been on a good roll, enjoying hotel occupancy rates north of 80 percent and well above the state average. Add that to the county's relatively low 7 percent unemployment rate and what's not to like?

Not all is quite what it seems, says Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi. People are leaving Monroe after the real estate decline, because there are few construction jobs and, Gastesi notes, "this is an expensive county to live in." That exodus helps the jobless rate look better, but it does not make the economy more vibrant.

Housing prices are down on average from $400,000 to $300,000, though the volume of home sales has started to pick up. Fishing-related business is down. Take lobsters. Last year, they retailed at $12.99 a pound. Now they're $4.99 a pound as people tighten their belts.

Monroe's tourism win? Committing an extra penny to advertising, which Gastesi says prompted lots of people to "rediscover" the Keys. "So we are okay," he says, "but the gravy is gone."

Franklin

"We farm oysters here," says Anita Grove, who heads the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce in Franklin County. The county's modest 4,600-person work force has a 7.1 percent jobless rate with county government and an area hospital among the larger employers. Nearly 89 percent of the county's land is owned by the state or federal government. But oystering and shrimping are the life and soul of this county on the bay.

There's just one catch. The federal Food and Drug Administration is pushing for a ban on the sale of raw oysters from May to September to reduce the threat of serious illness to people with weak immune systems. With raw oyster bars prominent in the area (and across Florida) and 1,400 licensed oystermen in Franklin County alone, Grove says this "unilateral" FDA proposal would strangle the county economy.

"It was a big surprise. You're talking about putting thousands out of work with no chance for discussion," she said.

Alachua

No other county among Florida's 67 and so distant from a major metro area enjoys an 800-pound gorilla like this one. It's called the University of Florida in Gainesville, an economic engine any other county would die for. The good news is that UF helps keep a jobless rate manageable at 7.1 percent. The bad news is it's tough to diversify Alachua's economy with businesses not tied to the Home of the Gators or the nearby Shands hospital system. That's education and health, two positive growth sectors in this recession.

Alachua also is home to two business incubators: the Sid Martin biotech incubator affiliated with UF, and GTEC, the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center. "We've seen a number of companies graduate from these facilities," said Alachua chamber CEO Brent Christensen, a Tampa transplant. "Some move into Gainesville and some have left."

When Enterprise Rent-A-Car opened a claims service center in the county earlier this year, Christensen says they had 1,000 applicants for 120 openings.

Florida's unemployment extremes share an uphill battle 11/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 6, 2009 9:38pm]

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