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 email@example.com.