Hernando County key economic indicators 2008 to 2013
|Nov. 2013||7.7% n|
Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation
PERMITS FOR SINGLE-FAMILY HOMES
Source: Hernando County Development Department
SINGLE-FAMILY HOMES SOLD
Source: Hernando County Multiple Listing Service
SINGLE-FAMILY HOMES MEDIAN SALES PRICE
Source: Hernando County Multiple Listing Service
Source: Hernando County Clerk of Court
BROOKSVILLE — Inch by inch, Hernando County made slow but steady progress in 2013 in its effort to climb out of a stubborn recession that seemed to hit the county of 173,800 residents harder than its neighbors.
Unemployment numbers that were at one time the second highest in the state have continued to shrink. So have once out-of-control foreclosures rates. And cautious optimism has even spread to Hernando's beleaguered construction industry, which saw a marked increase in activity over the past 12 months.
While most experts say the indicators point to steady improvements, some, like Dave Hamilton, operations management consultant for the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board, continue to take a wary approach. Yes, unemployment is down to 7.7 percent — still higher than the state average — and will probably fall lower in the coming year. But Hernando's 1 percent job growth in 2013 was only half that of the rest of the state.
"What we've seen is that the workforce has grown and more people are working, but it's not an entirely positive trend when you put it into historical perspective," Hamilton said.
Hernando County's aging population is a factor when analyzing the local economy, he said. Likewise, not always factored into the statistics are workers who have moved out of the area, taken early retirement, gone on disability or live in households that no longer need a second income.
Another key factor is the jobs themselves. According to Hamilton, the sectors that posted the biggest job gains last year were the well-paying medical industry and the lower-paying retail industry. That, said Hamilton, has a trickle-down effect when it comes to things like home-buying, another key factor in Hernando's economic health.
County Administrator Len Sossamon agrees. And as the man who now doubles as the county's economic development director, he plans to aggressively pursue new avenues to lure businesses and light industry to Hernando.
A key part of Sossamon's strategy came about last year with the county acquiring membership in the World Economic Development Alliance, which provides leads to communities trying to attract businesses. Sossamon wants to use that tool to focus on industries Hernando chooses to target, such as high-tech and manufacturing companies.
"Cutting-edge industries such as agriscience and avionics are gems to have in your community because they pay well and they tend to lure other industries that support their businesses," Sossamon said. "I think we're in a good position to do that. We have a great quality of life here, close to the water and to a thriving urban area, and that's what those companies are seeking for their employees."
In addition, Sossamon wants to build a coalition of nine or 10 business leaders and meet quarterly to report on economic development activities and brainstorm about new approaches.
"My approach is to get them involved so we can do a strategic search into what we want to bring to our county," Sossamon said.
Hernando's real estate picture continued to be a mixed bag during 2013. Distressed properties tailed off significantly, with county figures showing 1,369 foreclosures, down from 2,207 filings in 2012. The number of homes sold was 60 percent higher than the number sold the previous year. And there was a slight increase in the median sale price of homes that found buyers.
Hernando County Association of Realtors president Ana Trinque said she believes those trends will continue in 2014.
"It's not a perfect picture, but considering how far the housing market had fallen during the recession, the positive signs are definitely there," Trinque said. "We're still in a fragile state, but we're all optimistic that we're heading in the right direction."
Trinque said her greatest concern is that housing lenders still seem unwilling to loosen credit standards. That, she said, along with the Federal Housing Authority's continued stringent rules, has strangled many potential sales, especially among less wealthy buyers.
"There are a lot more hoops than we'd like to see," Trinque said. "But that's just the nature of the banking and lending industry these days. People have to expect that when they are thinking of buying a home."
Hernando also saw renewed optimism in new home construction in 2013. Once the county's major economic growth engine, construction peaked in 2005, when 4,185 single-family home permits were issued. Then, for 2011 and 2012 combined, the number failed to top 300.
However, 2013 saw 239 permits issued for single-family homes. And while that number did not approach the robustness of the boom years, builders will gladly take whatever glimmer of hope they can find, said former Hernando Builders Association president Chris Glover.
"We've been riding out the storm for quite a while," said Glover, whose company, Palmwood Builders, builds custom homes. "The lull has changed the industry in Hernando so much. We've all had to approach it differently."
Glover said that his business is still mostly driven by people relocating from the North who would rather build than buy an existing home that needs work.
"The housing markets up North are much more favorable than they were a couple of years ago, and that's helped us down here," Glover said.
He said that while he's happy things are on the upswing, he's concerned about a shortage of skilled trades people, such as plumbers and electricians, as he looks toward the future.
"It's not like a few years ago when companies were busy and had lots of crews," Glover said. "These days, it's usually just the owner and maybe a helper or two, and they're usually busy when you call them. I haven't had to worry about that for a long time."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.