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How will Tampa Bay's economy fare in 2012? Better, say many

Barbara McCarthy, co-owner of Sun Country Cleaners in Largo, predicts "2012 is going to be an awesome year" for Tampa Bay's economy. "You can see all over that people have lost their fear of spending," says McCarthy, whose dry cleaning business is in full hiring mode. Not everyone shares her level of enthusiasm. But based on a smattering of interviews with local business leaders and observers, optimism is clearly on the rise in 2012. Many are betting that housing has bottomed, unemployment will gradually improve, and pent-up demand from investors and consumers will boost business. Here are some prognostications:

Brian Lamb

President/Tampa Bay

Fifth Third Bank, Tampa

We believe the U.S. economy will continue to move forward in 2012 and avoid recession. The growth may be slower than the long-term average of 3 percent, but positive nonetheless. Here in Tampa, we continue to see forward progress as well. Exports are rising from our ports, and tourism, in general, is healthy.

We do understand that we have more economic ground to make up compared with some other large U.S. cities, as our unemployment rate is still above the national average and the housing market still challenged.

If our expectation for the national economy holds, our region will continue to see gains in employment, incomes and activity — just as we saw develop in 2011.

Neil Kiefer

Chief executive of Original Hooters Inc., Clearwater

It's going to be gradual, but we felt the local economy turn up in the second half of 2011. Our comparable-store gains (from stores open at least a year) rose from 1 percent to 3.5 percent in the second half without raising prices. I see it continuing to get better with a good tourist season and an improving unemployment rate. Credit will remain tough for startups, but not for well-established businesses. We were opportunistic in the slowdown, paring expenses and taking advantage of the down real estate market to grow from nine stores in the bay area two years ago to 12 by next May.

Michelle Jennings Wiebe

Owner and president

Studio M Interior Design, Tampa

Our firm is still very busy, while specializing in luxury residential new construction and major remodeling interior design. Fortunately, we have seen this market continue strongly, including new projects just signed the last quarter of 2011. These projects typically last anywhere from 12 to 24 months. We anticipate continued growth in 2012. Also, we are seeing our commercial interior design projects possibly start increasing, so we may be looking to hire a new commercial designer this year. Studio M is also hopeful in designing more out-of-state projects. All this being said, we understand that the real estate market must begin to rise again. Decreased housing values definitely have hurt Florida and the Tampa Bay area. Hopefully, this will turn around.

Randy Collack

Chief operating officer

Blue-Grace Group LLC, Riverview

For Blue-Grace the outlook remains sunny. We plan on expanding our offices in Tampa to enable the hiring of an additional 75 people in 2012. Our ability to recruit the right people will determine our success next year.

Steve Knopik

Chief executive officer

Beall's Inc., Bradenton

Economic improvement will continue to be painfully slow. A major distraction will be all these election campaigns that create uncertainty. Politicians will be out talking and running TV ads for months, but putting off making very serious and required decisions until after the elections. It's put our economic recovery in a holding pattern. It's going to be particularly frustrating to Floridians, where we have a large population segment whose retirement income, Social Security, Medicare and health care will be debated and directly affected. With so much uncertainty among consumers, businesses have held off major investments until the coast is clear. Well, the coast won't be clear.

Jim Dean

Executive vice president and general manager

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Tampa

Thanks to our new Cheetah Hunt coaster/animal attraction, we had record attendance, and it was open only half of 2011. We should get a full-year benefit in 2012, plus we're opening a new ice show Feb. 2 and a new animal-care facility Jan. 23. We've been fortunate to have a very loyal group of local passholders who in hard times take more day trips here when they cut vacations short or stay home. The Florida tourist industry is doing better but still not fully recovered. We see our domestic markets getting better this winter. We see the South American market continuing to be strong. Canada looks good. We hope the UK stays healthy. We see a big opportunity to get more Tampa cruise passengers to visit. The Republican National Convention being in Tampa this summer will be a great opportunity to showcase our park and this market to a lot of people who have never seen it. We plan to have as many people who attend it out here for events as we can.

Jane Mason

Chief executive officer

eMASON, Clearwater

I believe that we will see a stabilization of the housing market in the third quarter with a positive uptick in the local economy. Low interest rates, ongoing loss mitigation offerings and refinancing options will all play a part in the job market and help boost the economic activity here in the Tampa Bay area.

Mike Vail

President and chief operating officer

Sweetbay Supermarket, Tampa

The bay area economy is better off than a year ago and should continue to improve slowly. In the food business, we're still wrestling with high food-price inflation. Meanwhile, food stamp issuance in Florida rose 10.4 percent in September from a year ago, up 164 percent since 2006. Housing sales are increasing and foreclosures are finally beginning to move through the process, so we should see some housing price stability. We're seeing migration and new housing construction in other parts of Florida like the Villages, but we won't see any significant new housing in the bay area until the foreclosure glut is worked through. With unemployment over 10 percent, we need to get down to 8.5 percent before we'll see any momentum start to kick in.

Barbara McCarthy

Co-owner

Sun Country Cleaners, Largo

I think 2012 is going to be an awesome year. You can see all over that people have lost their fear of spending. We're getting more dry cleaning than ever. Clearwater Beach had been a ghost town that's now energized with tourists. You didn't need a reservation to get in the better restaurants, and now you do. Our employees who had been patching up their cars bought new ones or bought a house. Our business has been blessed. We saw the recession as an opportunity by taking over struggling cleaners and turning them around. In 2008 we had 22 stores and 80 employees. Now we have 28 stores, 115 employees, and we're about to add three stores in Brandon. We're hiring.

Larry Richey

Managing broker and senior managing director

Cushman & Wakefield, Tampa

We expect the Tampa Bay area economy to show a substantial improvement in 2012 in terms of positive job growth, a declining overall unemployment rate, an increase in retail sales and tourism, and an improvement in the residential and commercial real estate market. The Tampa Bay area is once again one of the most cost-effective places to do business in the U.S., and we believe this will continue to drive economic development wins for the area both in corporation relocations and expansion of existing companies.

Robert Dutkowsky

Chief executive officer

Tech Data Corp., Clearwater

While I don't foresee our local economy dramatically improving in 2012, I also don't expect it to worsen. Events like the Republican National Convention should help to inject revenue and opportunity into the Tampa Bay area. Industry analysts predict over $1.7 trillion in tech spending in 2012. This represents a huge opportunity for Tech Data, even in a soft economy. We'll continue to focus on four strategic areas — mobility, software, consumer electronics and the data center — to drive growth. Tech Data has proven over the past few years that we can succeed and grow even in a stagnant economy, so we're excited about what the new year holds.

Raymond Sandelli

Senior managing director

CB Richard Ellis, Tampa

Overall, the Tampa commercial real estate market improved in every sector year-over-year. While progress was slow in some areas, other asset types such as multihousing experienced a sharp uptick in investor interest and demand. While an air of uncertainty continues, some clarity has returned and affords a base of real-time data to build on. With even expected modest growth, better real-time information, renewed interest in real estate, and with a large pool of both debt and equity, we again expect to see continued improvement.

John M. McDonald III

Senior managing director

Hyde Park Capital Partners LLC, Tampa

Given that next year is an election year, I think that the Fed and the federal government will continue to do what they can to artificially prop up our economy which will result in a continued slow recovery with gradual decreases in unemployment and 1.5 percent or higher GDP growth. I think the stock market will be flat for most of the year while the mergers and acquisitions market will be strong, driven by the number of aging baby boomers who will decide to sell their companies and by the large amount of liquidity that corporate America and private equity funds have that is looking for a home. M&A activity will also be driven by a large wave of consolidation in the health care sector as Obamacare forces cost savings. Beyond 2012, all bets are off.

Craig Beggins

President and chief executive officer

Century 21 Beggins Enterprises, Apollo Beach

As an optimist, I have been on the lookout for signs of economic recovery for the last four years, and they've been hard to find until recently. Now I have a hard time not seeing signs of recovery. Housing inventory is way down, home sales are way up, remodeling and home-improvement projects seem to be more prevalent. People are tired of being depressed, and fixing up their homes makes them feel better. And the fact that they have the money to fix up their homes also tells me that they must have some confidence in the overall economy. As a result, we're forecasting a 30 percent increase in our sales for 2012.

John Hagen, CEcD

President and chief executive officer

Pasco Economic Development Council, Lutz

We have been hearing all the bad news for the past five years. Meanwhile, cash has been piling up. It eventually has to be deployed somewhere. So, I think there is a higher probability of upside than downside surprises. Tampa Bay is a pretty good place to invest right now: low prices, good growth prospects, reasonable operating costs. And Pasco County is even more so. However, we still have regional structural issues. Industries like construction, tourism and defense may not be as robust going forward, and economic diversification will continue to be a challenge.

Allen R. Brinkman II

Chairman, president and chief executive officer

SunTrust Bank of Tampa Bay, Tampa

Turmoil in Europe and politics keeps me in the cautious camp. On a local note, I am starting to see our customers hiring, and the unemployment rate is finally falling. Rising gas prices, which act like a tax on the economy, are gone for now. We see some of the imbalances that built up during the credit bubble have been alleviated. Relative to income, house prices are now back to their historic average. Personal-savings rates have risen. Debt burdens are down. While we are not out of the weeds, I am optimistic about Tampa Bay's future. Many people have fundamentally changed the way they spend, save and think about leverage. I have a strong sense that these behavioral changes will better position us for the future.

Jim Myers

President, chief operating officer

Crown Automotive Group, St. Petersburg

We are forecasting a very strong upswing in the local economy in 2012, driven by improvement in the housing market, continued low interest rates, availability of financing, and pent-up demand in automotive and other areas of consumer spending. The Tampa Bay area remains one of the most attractive places to live and work in the U.S. Our state's recognition of the need for a stronger emphasis on education, and the resulting positive impact on business and employment, will produce significant future benefits for all concerned, along with new efforts such as the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce's focus on promoting economic development in the entire bay area.

Robert Glaser

President and chief executive officer

Smith & Associates Real Estate, Tampa

The 2012 real estate market will advance on the heels of the improvement that started in late 2010. The market will find that, year over year, single-family home sales have improved as the number of new listings continue a downward trend with the median sales price at its lowest number year to date. I predict the number of sales will continue to rise. In certain segments, prices will have some gains as there are certain neighborhoods, high-rises and communities with limited inventories.

Joe Cotton

Stock technician and publisher

Cotton's Technically Speaking

St. Pete Beach

The economy will continue to improve. I think housing prices have bottomed at this level. I think the condo market has bottomed. Prices are so cheap it's hard to believe. I don't necessarily see a lot of hiring in the near future. I think the economy is picking up (but) there will be a lag of about six months before you see hiring picking up as well.

Times staff writers Mark Albright, Jeff Harrington, Mark Puente and Robert Trigaux contributed to this report.

How will Tampa Bay's economy fare in 2012? Better, say many 01/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 12:17pm]
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