APOLLO BEACH — When the Tampa Bay housing market took a dive five years ago, so did Craig Sas' business.
As president of CRS Building Corp., which specialized in the construction of clubhouses and amenities at new housing developments, he was forced to reinvent. The St. Petersburg-based business found its niche building fire stations.
"We had to redirect our business plan a little bit to stay intact," Sas said.
For many in the construction industry, adapting didn't come as easily. In Tampa Bay, the number of current construction jobs is half of what it was in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But there is a spark of hope for the entire Tampa Bay area in south Hillsborough County.
Waterset, a new community development in Apollo Beach, opened this month after stalling in 2007. Hailed by its creators as the largest master-planned community unveiled in the state this year, Waterset plans to build up to 6,000 homes.
And all those homes mean jobs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, three jobs are created for every new house built.
"On any given day, over the past six to seven months, there have been 300 to 400 people who have directly been working on the project," said Rick Harcrow, a senior vice president for Waterset's developer, Newland Communities, which also developed FishHawk. "Those are architects, engineers, design and creative teams, site contractors."
The project allowed CRS to return to its roots. Its crew wrapped up construction of Waterset's clubhouse and swimming pool last month.
Their biggest obstacle? Finding a workforce large enough to make it happen. The housing revival represented by Waterset should have been an optimistic boost for construction workers, but many already have left for other areas.
"The construction market in this area pretty much dried up," Sas said. "A lot of the tradesmen and skilled labor left the area, so one of our biggest hurdles of trying to accomplish this in our time frame was trying to find workers. A lot or most of them left the state of Florida to find and seek other areas of opportunity."
Harcrow has been hearing similar complaints from other contractors at Waterset.
"As the market does start to show signs of recovery, finding good skilled workers, especially those with experience, that is going to be a real challenge for our market," he said.
It may take a while to build the workforce back up. Many companies are reluctant to hire and pour money into a market that's still unstable, said Steve Ebensberger, area president of David Weekley Homes, which is one of four builders at Waterset.
"I think what is happening is that business owners are cautiously optimistic about the market," Ebensberger said. "There is still some uncertainty, pretty high unemployment but coupled with low interest rates it's an excellent time to buy."
Tampa Bay lost more construction jobs in the past year than any other metro area nationwide except Atlanta, according to a monthly report by the Associated General Contractors of America.
But new construction is picking up. Builders in the bay area pulled more than 3,800 new permits for single-family homes in the first eight months of 2012, a 26 percent jump over the same period in 2011, U.S. Census data show.
On Oct. 6, Waterset's opening day, 32 new homes were sold according to Newland officials. Homes are priced from $170,000 to the low $300,000s with home sizes ranging from 1,634 to 3,800 square feet.
And Waterset is not the only place in Apollo Beach bringing jobs to the area. Construction started this month for St. Joseph's Hospital-South, which will be near Waterset on Big Bend Road. Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA plans to build a SouthShore recreation center just down the street in the next five years.
"I think most folks see that south county has a great deal of potential," Harcrow said. "The south part of the county is sort of the last frontier."
Still, not everyone is as optimistic.
"I think Newland is kind of out there a little bit ahead of the game," Sas said. "I think things are going to turn around, of course, but I wish I could say everything is going to continue proceeding and building like it is."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.