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Tampa Bay's top 10 business stories of 2009

The state’s jobless rate rose to double digits and job fairs like this one at the Tampa Convention Center in February were overwhelmed all year long.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

The state’s jobless rate rose to double digits and job fairs like this one at the Tampa Convention Center in February were overwhelmed all year long.

For many struggling with the loss of a job, foreclosure or bankruptcy, closing the pages on 2009 is a healthy, cathartic exercise. There was plenty of angst and anger to go around. Consider Bernie Madoff's epic, multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, which technically exploded in December of 2008, though the ripple effect for his victims and those of fellow scam artist Art Nadel of Sarasota continued throughout this year. But there were also signs of hope, of an economy turning the corner and of fresh leadership energizing a smattering of bay area companies. Not to mention the entrance of a certain Swedish furniture manufacturer with an intensely loyal local fan base. On to 2010!

ONE: Double-digit unemployment

The jobs crisis was the single biggest drain on economic recovery, forcing foreclosures to rise higher, reining in consumer spending, and putting added stresses on the state budget and social services. Even the state's unemployment insurance trust fund ran dry and needed an emergency federal lifeline. The lack of jobs overshadowed news that economists believe the recession technically ended in the third quarter. Among companies that posted the biggest mass layoffs in Florida this year: Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, Disney, Continental Airlines, Smithfield Packing and cigarmaker Altadis.

TWO: Florida's population falls

Florida's phenomenal annual growing streak since World War II came to a screeching halt — and at least temporarily reversed. Without the net increase in residents, there was little pressure boosting home sales prices upward, particularly when a surge of foreclosures was pushing net values down. That left more people "underwater," owing more than their house is worth.

THREE: Bankruptcies pile up

Area bankruptcy filings hit a record, with retailers, auto dealers and developers among the most frequent filers. Anchor Blue, Eddie Bauer, Crabtree & Evelyn and St. Petersburg-based Sacino & Sons filed for bankruptcy protection along with developers Opus South and Kearney Development. Seffner RV kingpin Lazydays filed a prepackaged bankruptcy. Linens 'n Things and Circuit City stores took the next step beyond bankruptcy, disappearing from the retail landscape entirely. And the tortured saga of Trump Tower Tampa officially ended in July when the site of what was supposed to be the biggest skyscraper on Florida's west coast fell into foreclosure, its local partnership already in bankruptcy.

FOUR: Busch Gardens' new owner

Blackstone Group agreed to buy Busch Gardens and the SeaWorld parks for $2.7 billion, ending brewer Anheuser-Busch's ownership of the Tampa theme park after 50 years. Meanwhile, Cypress Gardens closed again.

FIVE: Taylor Bean implodes

Mortgage lending and mortgage servicing nationwide was shaken up by the dual meltdown of Ocala-based Taylor, Bean & Whitaker and Colonial Bank. Confusion between regulatory agencies and lenders left hundreds of thousands scrambling for months to figure out how to pay their mortgage and why payments they had made were never credited.

SIX: Walter Energy pulls out

Walter, formerly known as Walter Industries, has been a local touchstone for 63 years as it morphed into one of the area's biggest public companies. But in September, the company decided its heart, along with its headquarters and new CEO, belonged to Birmingham, Ala., where it will be closer to its network of coal mines. Look for the relocation in the first half of 2010.

SEVEN: CEO shuffle

Some of Tampa Bay's biggest companies ended the year with new leaders. Jeff Lyash of Progress Energy Florida moved to the parent company's North Carolina headquarters, passing the baton for the Florida operation to Vinny Dolan in St. Petersburg. Raymond James' longtime chief Tom James began a yearlong departure process after anointing Paul Reilly as his heir. Outback Steakhouse hired as its new CEO Liz Smith, a former No. 2 at Avon Products. And GunnAllen Financial chief Gordon Loetz died in a boating accident, compelling his close friend John Sykes to temporarily step in to head the company.

EIGHT: Ikea arrives

To the delight of lovers of Swedish meatballs and inexpensive furniture, Ikea finally opened its first Tampa Bay area location in May. Expectations are the store will take $100 million in sales out of an already intensely competitive retail market.

NINE: Insurance rates spike

After a year of drama, No. 1 property insurer State Farm reversed itself and agreed to stay in Florida … at a price. It's dropping 125,000 policies and raising rates 15 percent. The news comes after Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty approved a raft of rate hikes for insurers still here, some in the double digits. And carriers like Nationwide are dropping tens of thousands of policies.

TEN: Bank failures accelerate

BankUnited of Coral Gables failed. Florida's third-largest credit union, Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union, was placed into conservatorship. And then there's Alabama-based Colonial Bank, a major Florida player whose assets were bought by BB&T after it failed. By year-end, 14 banks based in Florida had failed and dozens more were in critical condition.

Tampa Bay's top 10 business stories of 2009 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 9:37pm]

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