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Times annual survey: Backing away from economic cliff

The Tampa Bay business community's painful economic wail from early 2009 has tempered one year later to a more modest, collective moan, say the results of the St. Petersburg Times' annual Business Leaders survey.

In 2010, fingers are not glued to the panic buttons over the fate of the economy, Florida's declining housing market and a free fall in the stock markets. Experienced business leaders like Raymond James Financial CEO Tom James are quite blunt, if you dare to ask, when explaining how close our economic system came to a meltdown in latter 2008 and early 2009.

So, according to the survey, what's top of mind now in Tampa Bay's business world? Creating more jobs. Resolving the health care debate. Finding a real solution to the staggering national deficit. Even — dare I mention this? — talk about growing again.

There are more 2010 priorities. Like hiring more and firing less. Improving the metro area with better mass transit. And wishing that lame-duck Gov. Charlie Crist, now campaigning to become a U.S. senator, deserved more than the gentleman's C surveyed business managers gave him. They complain of his superficial tenure as governor and a lack of problem-solving leadership while in Tallahassee.

Yes, our area economy backed away from the cliff we teetered on in March. Yet we have many miles to go before Tampa Bay's scandalous 12.4 percent jobless rate can be cut to a more reasonable range of unemployment. There's more to do before business confidence stabilizes, and a bit more faith in state and federal leadership is restored.

Such are the most striking findings in the Times' survey, an annual poll this paper has done since the mid 1990s. Last month, the newspaper's market research department interviewed 141 business executives in the metro area and posed 28 questions on topics ranging from economics and hiring to health care and politics.

Asked if the economy will be better, worse or stay the same in 2010 compared to 2009, surveyed executives signaled in no uncertain terms that the worst is over. Nearly half say 2010 will be better, compared with just 16 percent when asked the same question one year ago. No less significant, just 6 percent this year said the 2010 economy will be worse, down dramatically from 47 percent who answered "worse" a year ago.

"Honestly, I see more positive than negative signs," says Doug Hillman, CEO of airplane instruments maker Aerosonic in Clearwater. His 220-employee company had to get extremely lean to overcome a fire and other financial hardships, but he says things now are on an upswing. Hillman sees more of a rebound coming in the latter half of 2010.

And, in keeping with the Times survey results, Hillman sees the beginnings of a thaw in bank credit after a period of great reluctance to lend to smaller businesses.

Don't be misled. The survey's findings do not mean a swift recovery's ahead. A full 45 percent expect the 2010 economy to "about the same" as 2009's.

Not everyone thinks we're out of the woods yet. A few of those surveyed — an architect, a Pinellas County community banker and the head of a large construction company in Tampa — expect the area economy to get worse this year.

But that's the strength of surveying more than 100 area business managers. The collective majority expect our economy to hover, as is, or improve. After the shock and awe of the past year and a half, that sounds pretty heartening.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

This year's buzz: jobs, mass transit

In the St. Petersburg Times annual Business Leaders survey, five questions generated the most compelling responses:

1. What recent news concerns you as you consider business prospects in 2010? This year, just 26 percent cited the "slow economy" as a concern. Last year, 57 percent did. This year, only 23 percent cited the "housing market" as a concern. Last year it was 50 percent. There are similar survey trends on "stock market volatility" and "downsizing." These matters had business execs near panic last year. Things have dialed down a lot in a year's time.

Now the buzz is all about jobs. Finding them. Creating them. Keeping them. Praying for more of them. And a lower federal deficit would not hurt, either.

2. Do you expect to increase or decrease the number of employees or keep the total about the same? It's simple. Hire more. Fire less. That's why 33 percent now say they will increase hiring, up from just 17 percent last year. And only 11 percent say they will cut jobs this year, far less than the 25 percent who planned layoffs last year. The rest? No hires. No fires.

3. Where will Tampa Bay's unemployment rate (now 12.4 percent) be by the end of this year? Alas, we're stuck spinning our unemployment wheels this year. The bulk of respondents see little change, with the jobless rate remaining between 12 and 12.9 percent.

4. If the Dow on Jan. 1, 2010, was at 10,431, where will it be a year from then? Like unemployment, we're going to tread water. Most respondents suggest little change ahead, with 54 percent picking "9,000 to 10,999."

5. If you could choose one thing to improve the Tampa Bay area, what would it be? I figured jobs, jobs, jobs would be the No. 1 answer, but it is not: 27 percent chose "improving transportation and mass transit" — presumably fueled by all the talk about light-rail plans here and publicity over a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. In second place, 15 percent say "create jobs, lower unemployment" and at No. 3, 12 percent say "improve education."

Times annual survey: Backing away from economic cliff 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 9:38pm]

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