Tampa Bay leaders bullish on economy, but consumers still worry

At Synovus Bank, longtime Tampa Bay banker David Dunbar is enthused the economy is "definitely getting better" as his institution comes off the strongest three-month streak of business lending that he has seen in three years.

At his namesake realty company, broker Lou Brown senses that the slow climb out of our foreclosure mess has begun.

And at Paradigm Learning, an employee training firm in St. Petersburg, Fortune 100 clients like McDonnell Douglas and PricewaterhouseCoopers are starting to spend again to develop the next generation of leaders.

"Our business is picking up 25 percent over last year," Paradigm co-founder and CEO Ray Green said. "We're cautiously optimistic. … In our own company, we're hiring. Some of our Florida-based companies are hiring."

Say this about Tampa Bay's business leaders: They're a highly optimistic bunch.

Yes, most are worried about oil prices and unrest in the Middle East. The federal debt is a downer. And most believe the lack of jobs is still the single biggest problem facing the bay area.

Yet only 3 percent of those polled in the St. Petersburg Times' annual business leaders survey predict the economy will get worse this year. That's down from a depressing 47 percent in the negative camp two years ago.

In 2010's survey, fewer than half of the local executives thought the economy would improve. This year, two-thirds of them contend a recovery is under way. Moreover, 73 percent predict that their own company will fare better this year.

All the happy talk may seem odd compared to the low enthusiasm of the average consumer. Consumer confidence among Floridians has eroded the past three months, according to a University of Florida poll released last week. They're worried about double-digit unemployment, soaring gas prices and a flat housing market.

One component of the consumer confidence index — expectations of where consumers think their personal finances will be a year from now — fell to a record low in April.

Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, said a disconnect between gloomy consumers and optimistic executives is partly because of chronically high unemployment. But it's also tied to $4-a-gallon gasoline.

"Unfortunately, there is a big old cloud — higher gasoline prices — and the impact of that falls more heavily on the bottom half of the income scale where a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck," Brown said.

"The typical consumer may be constrained but … the overall economy can continue to expand. Corporate profits have been pretty strong. They're flush with cash, and credit (for small businesses) is getting better."

Tim Bogott, CEO of the TradeWinds Islands Resorts in St. Pete Beach, said the recovery under way may be real, but it's also both complicated and fragile.

At TradeWinds, for example, first-quarter bookings were up 9 percent compared to a year ago, but early 2010 revenues were curtailed by an unusually cold Florida winter. Year-over-year comparisons should only become more favorable going forward since April marked the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the gulf that devastated Florida tourism.

Like others, Bogott said his optimism was tempered by all the threats still looming — notably weak hiring, troubled housing, rising oil prices and high national debt.

"There's still a lot of bad problems that a few wrong turns could easily pull us back into a recession or at least a very slow recovery," he said.

For Lou Brown, of the St. Petersburg realty firm, the question isn't whether residential real estate is coming back, but how long it will take.

"It's going to take us as long to get out of this hole as it did to get into it," he said. "I think we're talking about five years."

Dunbar, the Synovus Bank of Florida CEO, said the housing bust will continue to make a broader recovery more protracted. "So much of what we do in this state is tied directly or indirectly to the real estate game," he said.

That doesn't mean, he adds, that there won't be real estate growth in pockets like eastern Hillsborough County, Marian County and Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County.

And it certainly doesn't mean some other industries aren't growing. Dunbar has seen loan demand pick up in the medical, manufacturing and insurance sectors.

Dan Hevia with the accounting firm of Gregory, Sharer & Stuart independently echoed the same assessment: Clients in health care, manufacturing and many insurance sectors are seeing business improve the most, he said.

Hevia is worried about interest rates spiking eventually, and he wonders if our current system of governance is capable of getting beyond political squabbles to address high unemployment before a bigger crisis erupts.

Then again, he also believes in the power of positive thinking.

"It can be gloom and doom, but if people feel it's getting better, it will get better," he said. "It's been down long enough."

Note: An earlier version of this story online misidentified the accounting firm of Gregory, Sharer & Stuart.

Highlights from the survey

To view the entire survey,

go to links.tampabay.com.

• About 67 percent think the economy will improve in 2011, 29 percent think it will stay the same, and only 3 percent think it will get worse.

• On the whole, area business leaders like Gov. Rick Scott's job performance early in his term better than that of his predecessor, Charlie Crist, a year ago. But Crist circa 2008-2009 scored higher marks. This year's breakdown: 16 percent gave Scott an A, 37 percent a B, 23 percent a C, 7 percent a D — and 14 percent an F. (Three percent said "Don't Know.") During three previous years, Crist never pulled higher than 3 percent rating him an F. Among those giving Scott a C or lower, their biggest concerns were that he shouldn't have cut light/high-speed rail, and that he needs to be less dictatorial.

• Fifty-two percent give the federal government a D or F for its handling of the economic crisis. In 2010, 58 percent were in the B or C range.

• What's the one thing the executives would do to improve the Tampa Bay area? Twenty-one percent said improve transportation or mass transit; 17 percent said encourage job growth.

• For the first time since the recession struck four years ago, a majority of leaders (56 percent) said their average employee's wages will increase this year. Of those doling out raises, the plurality (43 percent) said the hikes will be in the 3 to 3.9 percent range.

• How will your company cut costs this year? The most popular answer: reducing health benefits or increasing co-pays (41 percent) followed by cutting back or freezing hiring (32 percent).

• Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they have had little to no problem finding bay area workers with sufficient skills.

Jeff Harrington, Times staff writer

About the survey

In a St. Petersburg Times-commissioned survey, Braun Research conducted 106 phone interviews with Tampa Bay executives March 16-April 20. Margin of error is +/- 5 percentage points.

Tampa Bay leaders bullish on economy, but consumers still worry 04/30/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 5:43pm]

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