BROOKSVILLE — Chart Hernando County's economic growth against communities nationwide with the healthiest economies over the last three decades, and Hernando far outstrips those performances.
But when it comes to wages, the county falters. In 1977, Hernando's average wage was 73 percent of the national average; in 2007, it had fallen below 60 percent.
That's why the county needs to attract higher paying jobs by retaining, recruiting and creating primary industries, economist William Fruth told county and business leaders during a special County Commission workshop on Thursday.
Having so few jobs at the higher end of wages and so many at the lower end in Hernando is "deplorable. That's third world nation stuff,'' he told commissioners as they met with members of Hernando Progress Inc., which sponsored Fruth's presentation.
Although construction had been the major contributor to the economy, Fruth said the source of most of the money moving through Hernando County today comes from retirees.
The nationwide percentage of people over 65 is 12.6 percent. In Florida, it is 17 percent, and in Hernando, it is 25.7 percent.
Fruth didn't push for what many have argued for locally: a return to a vibrant construction-based economy. He said that when the peak in building happened in 2005 and nearly 4,300 building permits were issued, the construction business was building far beyond the needs of the marketplace.
That has left the county with an inventory of available homes for years to come, and he anticipated construction would be "dead in the water'' for the next two or three years.
He also predicted that home values will decline for another year, tax revenues would continue to drop, and that nothing in the federal stimulus plans would be a significant benefit to Hernando County.
After some of the inventory of empty homes is gone and building begins to pick up again, Fruth said he believed that the county's growth would flatline for at least 10 years.
Luring primary industries and higher-paying jobs is the only way to turn that around, he said, and he offered a game plan.
Fruth suggested that the county study its workforce and be realistic about the available skills in the community. If workers are qualified for $35,000 a year jobs, the county might shoot for industries that would pay $45,000 if workers could get trained. Seeking companies with higher paying jobs would not be wise.
Marketing Hernando County's quality of life is also not a good idea because everyone says they have that. Instead, officials should market the county for qualities more tangible to businesses, such as the ease of getting permits or the availability of transportation.
Fruth said the county needed a package of economic incentives and large business-ready locations that have approvals necessary for a company to move right in.
County officials explained that they were well on their way in many of those areas, but Fruth said there was still much to be done.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.