Tampa Bay poll: Optimism rises for an improved economy in 2013

Andrea Schleicher, a longtime special education teacher, sees signs all around her that Tampa Bay's economy is poised for a brighter year.

Several houses on her street just sold; the stock market is up; and gas prices are down, making the commute from her Tarpon Springs home to various Pasco County schools much more palatable.

"There are a lot of positives showing the economy is turning," Schleicher said. "I think it will get better next year."

Schleicher's fellow Tampa Bay residents are also more optimistic that the economy is on the upswing, or at least that it won't get worse, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/AM 820 News poll.

About 42 percent of Hillsborough County residents and 34 percent of Pinellas County residents believe they and their families will be better off a year from now; most of the rest think their situation will be about the same. Only 16 percent of residents in both counties believe their financial situation will worsen.

That's a strong jump from a year ago, when the Tampa Bay poll showed just 29 percent of respondents thought 2012 would be a good year for them financially.

The re-election of President Barack Obama was largely a wash on the results. A little under a third said the outcome made them more optimistic; a little over a third indicated it made them less optimistic, and a third said it made no difference.

Economist Chris McCarty said the findings mesh with the monthly statewide University of Florida consumer confidence poll that he oversees. In November, Florida consumer confidence dipped in part because of the election, he said, but it has still been trending positive much of the year.

A rise in home prices throughout the year is one of the brightest spots for many Florida metros, McCarty noted. "Things certainly are better, and I think the consumer confidence numbers … reflect that."

Nationally, the gross domestic product for the third quarter was revised up last week to 3.1 percent, still below what is needed to surge out of the economic doldrums, but better than many recent quarters. Consumer confidence is at the highest point in four-and-a-half years, auto sales have rebounded and the latest home sales beat expectations.

In Florida, the unemployment rate has steadily fallen, reaching a four-year low of 8.1 percent in November. In the Tampa Bay area, home sales, home prices and home construction have all picked up in recent months. Pinellas County experienced record levels of tourists in 2012.

The Congressional Budget Office has forecast a very mild 1.7 percent growth in the nation's economy next year and some economists predict Florida is poised to outpace the rest of the country if the housing market recovery continues.

Robert Pollard of Ruskin isn't buying it.

Pollard, 52, who works as an automotive parts and service fleet manager, is concerned the country's fiscal policies have set it up for a nightmare and believes Tampa Bay will be hit as hard as everyone else.

His laundry list of worries runs from unchecked government spending to the massive federal debt to a skyrocketing cost of living, with gas prices trending up in recent years and higher food prices.

"I see runaway inflation. I don't see how it cannot happen," he added. "It might not be today or tomorrow, but it has to be in the next two or three years."

Pollard sees the federal budget choking the economy even if the pending "fiscal cliff" is resolved with Obama and Congress reaching a deal that prevents automatic, heavy spending cuts and tax increases going into effect next year.

Pat Franke of Largo disagrees. He ties the federal budget mess to heavy spending on foreign wars, a commitment that is winding down.

"As we slowly get our military out of other countries and back home, we won't be spending as much money on it," he said. "I'm hoping we are past the worst."

Like many survey responders, Franke, 49, is less enthusiastic about his current economic situation.

More than half of those polled said their economic situation is unchanged from a year ago; about 27 percent said they are worse off and only 16 percent said they feel better off than they were at the close of 2011.

In Franke's case, a tough economy has translated to working more hours for the same pay. A restaurant general manager, Franke used to work five days a week. Now the industry standard is putting in six days a week, he said.

"You used to have another manager on salary," he said. "Now, instead of having three managers (rotating in one location), they have two managers covering for each other. … The quality of life has changed a lot."

Robert Collette, 88, of South Pasadena counts himself in the camp of optimists for 2013.

"We've been in a stormy sea and a big wave broke over and we're coming out of it," he said. "Unless the blockers of doing anything in Congress prevail totally, I think we'll come out of it pretty good."

The nation just needs time, he said, to heal from the biggest recession since the Great Depression. "It took (President Franklin) Roosevelt 12 years," he added.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

How it was done

The telephone survey of 521 Pinellas and Hillsborough residents, conducted Dec. 5-13 by national polling firm Braun Research, had an overall margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

Tampa Bay poll: Optimism rises for an improved economy in 2013 12/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 11:00pm]

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