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Tampa Bay's top economic stories of 2008

2008 was a gut-wrenching about-face for the Tampa Bay area compared with those placid years when it was a job-generating machine. Rising layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Lower home values, stock portfolios and credit limits. Sure, there were other notable local business stories — such as the emergence of Vegas-style slots and blackjack at Seminole Indian casinos — but the undercurrent of the widening recession ran through most everything. Here's a look at 10 transformative economic stories that affected our region:

1 Local unemployment spikes as layoffs pile up

Nothing says recession like jobs. Or lack thereof. Unemployment in the bay area stood at 7.8 percent with the latest numbers out this month, up from 4.5 percent a year ago. A partial list of companies laying off area workers this past year: Albertsons, Citigroup, Jabil Circuit, JPMorgan Chase, Wachovia, LazyDays RV Center, Shells Seafood Restaurants and AmeriGroup Florida.

2 The Wells Fargo wagon comes to town

Citibank — no, wait — Wells Fargo is suddenly the biggest bank in Florida after it wins a tug-of-war over shell-shocked Wachovia Corp. Meanwhile, Bank of America corrals Merrill Lynch, and JPMorgan Chase picks up the pieces of Washington Mutual as we sort through a new financial world order, one where the strongest (at least in the Treasury Department's view) survive.

3 Bankruptcy boom

Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings hit the area with a vengeance: Arigato Japanese Steak House, Accentia BioPharmaceuticals, Evatone Inc., Creative Loafing, Dynamic Leisure.

4 Double-digit drop in housing prices

The overheated housing market led the way into the recession, and it's not leading the way out yet. Home prices in the bay area were down almost 20 percent year over year, falling back to levels seen in late 2004.

5 Credit crunch crisis

Yes, this is a national story, but local ramifications were severe. Many small businesses were paralyzed as they couldn't get loans; banks big and small tried to shore up reserves. The owner of BayWalk said the downtown St. Petersburg movie theater and shopping complex ended up in foreclosure because he couldn't renegotiate its mortgage or find another lender.

6 Local auto dealers out of gas

While Detroit-based automakers were lobbying for a bailout, time had already run out for some dealerships here. Bob Wilson Dodge, AutoWay Dodge, AutoWay Chevrolet of Tampa Bay and Bill Heard Chevrolet closed; Ernie Haire Ford filed for bankruptcy. Plus, cash-hungry Lazydays RV SuperCenter in Seffner, the world's largest single-site RV dealer, was forced to skip a multimillion-dollar debt payment and renegotiate with lenders.

7 Championship fever

Here's a sports business tonic to help offset a drop in tourism. Thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays' surprising season, the bay area played host to the World Series this fall even as it ramped up to host the Super Bowl next year.

8 Seminole gaming expands

Another bright spot for tourism dollars: The Seminole Tribe of Florida launched the area's only casino-style games of blackjack, baccarat and poker variants at its Hard Rock Casino in Tampa in November, following its launch of Vegas-style slots.

9 Biotech boomlet

A high-tech push gets a dual boost. MIT spinoff Draper Laboratories commits to building facilities in Tampa and St. Petersburg, lured by $30-million in state and local incentives. And SRI International breaks ground on an $8.6-million headquarters adjacent to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

10 Roller-coaster fuel prices

By the time sky-high oil prices started falling in the fall, the damage had already been done to auto dealers, boat dealers like MarineMax and trucking companies like Quality Distribution. As of late December, customers of Progress Energy and Tampa Electric were crossing their fingers for a reprieve from slated rate hikes tied to the utilities' fuel costs.

Tampa Bay's top economic stories of 2008 12/27/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 28, 2008 9:47am]
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    ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.

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[DIRK SHADD   |   Times file photo]

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