Climbing out of a stubborn recession has proved a tough task for Hernando County residents the past couple of years. The prevalence of shuttered businesses and foreclosure signs are proof that the county still has a long way to go in tackling the problem of how to get people back into higher-paying jobs.
The booming housing and construction industry of five years ago seems like a distant dream. And while the area continues to lure Northern retirees, just about everyone agrees that the county is unlikely to see the numbers it once did.
That said, key economic indicators indicate that Hernando showed some of the same gains as other Central Florida counties, but at a more moderate pace.
Like the rest of the state, Hernando continued to see a decrease in its jobless rate, which topped out above 15 percent just two years ago. Unemployment fell to 9.6 percent by the end of the fourth quarter. However, the county still lagged behind nearly all other counties in the Tampa Bay area in job growth.
Dave Hamilton, operations management consultant for the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board, said that while employment numbers generally speak positively about the county's job creation, well-paying jobs are still tough to find for the average worker.
"The biggest increase in jobs is always in the service sector, where wages are often lower than average," Hamilton said. "But there has also been a lot of positive activity this year in the skilled medical field, and we expect that to continue."
Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager, said that he sees the county continuing to gain ground in attracting light manufacturing. He points to plans by Accuform Signs to build a 308,000-square-foot facility in the county's airport industrial complex, and a promise of about 271 new jobs by 2016 as an indication of what lies ahead.
"This is a business whose owners believe in Hernando County and what it has to offer them," McHugh said. "We're optimistic that others will follow."
McHugh said that the recent rebranding of the county's 2,400-acre airport as the Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport and the opening of the new 82-foot-tall control tower offer additional lures to midsize companies looking to move to the county.
"Attracting companies that can provide good-paying jobs is our prime target," McHugh said. "This facility and the aviation businesses within it have proven to be a plus in that regard."
Hernando's real estate picture continued to be a mix of good and bad tidings, with foreclosures driving the market. Sellers took financial hits, while buyers, especially those with cash — scarfed up great deals.
County figures showed foreclosures up significantly in 2012 with 2,207 filings. In 2011, there were 1,319 foreclosures.
According to figures provided by the Hernando County Property Appraiser, there were about 200 more single-family homes sold this year than in 2011. The median price is about $105,000, slightly lower than last year.
According to Ross Hardy, owner of Remax Marketing Specialists in Spring Hill, the county's inventory of unsold homes is continuing to drop, and that means prices are likely to rise in coming months.
"It's not a perfect picture, but we are seeing improvement," Hardy said. "Obviously, it's not a great time if you're a seller, but if you have cash, there are some very good deals to be found."
Hardy said that while housing lenders have loosened their credit standards a bit, loans such as those backed by the Federal Housing Authority continue to be more complex because of more stringent rules.
While sales of existing homes continue to rebound, 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 single-family home permits were issued. According to the county's Development Department, just 160 permits were pulled as of late December, a modest increase from the prior year, but far lower than what most experts would consider normal.
Former Hernando Builders Association president and current treasurer Dudley Hampton, believes the ongoing slide is likely to continue for years to come.
"It's pretty much following what the economy is doing," Hampton said. "(The county) may be on the road to recovery, but it's not having much of an effect on people who are looking to build new homes. The money's just not there."
Hampton believes that in order for Hernando to return to anything like a normal building cycle, the county would have to attract an industry capable of generating higher-wage jobs.
"Years ago we had agriculture, then mining, then construction, and all had their growth cycles," Hampton said. "It would probably take something like light manufacturing or a new medical facility to grow that many jobs. It's not likely to happen as long as our economy is based on the service industry."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]