Like a car that keeps stalling, Hernando County's economy had trouble moving forward in 2011. For much of the year, the county had the distinction of ranking consistently low in several key economic areas.
The county's unemployment rate remained among the highest in the state. Housing values continued to plummet. And new home construction, which fueled an economic boom just a few years before, was virtually nonexistent — at its lowest level, in fact, in many years.
In April, the economy even claimed a local bank. State regulators swooped in and closed Brooksville-based Cortez Community Bank, a victim of the poor housing market and the recession.
One bit of good news was that, for the second straight year, the number of foreclosure cases filed in Hernando decreased.
And on the job front, the year at lease ended somewhat better than it began, with the unemployment rate improving from a high of 15.2 percent in January to 13.1 percent in November. Still, the ranking puts Hernando in third place among the state's 67 counties.
Dave Hamilton, operations management consultant for the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board, said that while the numbers don't particularly reflect great news, an uptick in well-paying jobs in the medical field shouldn't go unnoticed.
"That's definitely a plus for the area in this economy," Hamilton said. "I believe it's a trend that will continue well into next year and beyond."
Hamilton, however, admitted that the bulk of the jobs created in the past year were in the service sector, where wages are often lower than average. While owners of restaurants and accommodations have been filling positions recently, he said he was disappointed that holiday hiring was less than expected.
"That tells me that retailers in the area are still skittish about sales," Hamilton said. "The only way that will improve is if the overall economy improves."
In the realm of industrial-related jobs, an economic development program the county launched several years ago to lure small manufacturers continues to pay off, said Valerie Pianta, program coordinator with Hernando's Office of Business Development.
During 2011, the county's Airport Industrial Park saw the opening or expansion of at least a half-dozen manufacturing firms, including Accuform Signs, Dynamic Pharmaceuticals, Airdyne Aerospace Corp. and Micromatic. There could be more good news down the road in 2012, Pianta said.
"Interest in what we have to offer to those types of businesses continues to be very high," Pianta said. "It's a testament to hard work and vision of business and community leaders who decided it was worth the effort."
Hernando's real estate market continued to be a mix of good and bad tidings, with foreclosures driving the market. If you were a seller in 2011, you were likely to take a financial hit. If you were a buyer, there were plenty of deals to be had — especially if you had cash.
According to figures provided by the Hernando County Association of Realtors, 2,314 single-family homes were purchased in Hernando during the past year, with a median price of about $87,000. That's about the same number that sold in 2010, but at lower prices.
Although housing lenders continued to feel the foreclosure pinch, the hurt has lessened somewhat. Foreclosures through December numbered 1,319, compared with 2,186 in 2010. About 50 percent of home sales were foreclosures and short sales.
Hernando County Association of Realtors president Laurie Neiman said Hernando's real estate market still suffers from "a climate of uncertainty," but she believes that things will continue to improve as the county's market inventory of 2,000 homes is depleted.
"We're starting to see prices going up, and that's a signal that the market is easing," Neiman said. "We still have a ways to go, but we are beginning to stabilize."
While sales of existing home are rebounding, the same can't be said for new home construction. Once the county's major economic growth engine, construction peaked in 2005, when 4,185 permits were issued for single-family homes.
Just 150 permits were pulled this year, according to the county's Development Department, reflecting a continuing downward slide that is likely to continue for years to come, experts say.
Hernando Builders Association vice president Chris Glover believes that the banking industry is still hesitant to finance new home construction because of the glut of unsold homes that were built during the boom years.
"I think there are people who still want to build homes," said Glover, whose company, Palmwood Builders, builds custom homes. "But if you aren't able to put down a lot of your own money, it's hard to find a lender that's willing to take that risk. That's just the way it is, and there's not much anyone can do about it."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.