The numbers are in, and their story is grim. Record high unemployment in 2009. Record high foreclosures. Record low permits issued for houses. And last year's median sales price for single-family homes was 44 percent less than in 2006. For an economic engine built on growth, the numbers represent an economic nightmare. Is there a way out?
One morning last week, Hernando County's business development director, Mike McHugh, addressed that question with a group of business owners at a seminar sponsored by Career Central.
"We're going through some tough times," McHugh said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat that. But we can pull ourselves out of this."
It won't be easy, he said.
In this economy, the Tampa Bay area is lagging behind the state of Florida. And Florida is lagging behind the nation.
"Florida was historically a state that would be the last one to feel an economic downturn and the first one to recover," McHugh said. "This time it's the opposite. We were the first ones to feel it, and we'll probably be one of the last ones to get out of it."
The state's economy was built on growth. When the growth stopped, everything came to a grinding halt.
But Florida will be back, McHugh said.
"I don't think we're ever going to see the heyday or overheated times we had," he said. "We were driven up to a very high cliff and have fallen off. We'd rather have very predicable growth than the exponential growth where the sky was the limit and anything went."
Moving forward, the most pressing concern lies in the county's high unemployment, McHugh said.
"We have more workers than we do jobs," he said. "It's been that way for years. It will continue to be that way for years. We export workers every day."
In order for businesses to hire, he said, they need to expand. But to expand, there's a good chance they'll need capital.
"The fuel for the tank for businesses is access to capital," McHugh said. "I think we're not going to see the jobs we need without access to capital."
In addition to capital, McHugh thinks the answer lies in the county's talent.
His office is putting finishing touches on the county's economic development plan, slated to be released in early February. Education and educational resources within the county will play a big part in the new plan, he said.
When businesses scout for new locations, they consider many factors.
"Their consideration is not 'I want to go to a community that has a lot of rooftops,' " McHugh said. "They are drawn to talent. We need to do better in the area of talent."
The county's educational numbers concern McHugh.
Compared to many other communities, Hernando has a below-average number of individuals with university and college degrees, as well as a lower number of high school graduates.
"Lower-skilled people are usually the first to get laid off, and they earn less," McHugh said. "Just the difference in a high school diploma or a nondiploma is about $7,000 a year. Think about what that means over the course of a lifetime."
Investing in community colleges and the county's K-12 system is critical, he said.
Marketing is another important part of the new plan, he said.
"When we sit down with a business, we must have the best possible portfolio of things they need to get them to come here," McHugh said.
While persuading a large company to invest in the county would be wonderful, small businesses have served the county well, he said.
"When folks own the business and live here, they have deeper roots and are more engaged with the community," he said. "They do better than if we're a dot on a map for a corporation."
McHugh considers himself an optimist and still sees Florida as a great place for businesses.
And for people considering the county, an endorsement from another business owner in the region can make a big difference, he said.
"What we're trying to do is what hundreds and hundreds of other communities want to do right now," McHugh said.
"Maybe our secret weapon will be you all," he told the group. "There's no better endorsement than from one of our business leaders. Help me sell the county."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.