Economy is going south, but people aren't

In this job, I look at way too many charts, graphs and statistics that lately spell way too much gloom and doom about Florida's economy. I swear I don't go looking for real-world examples of today's harsh numbers.

But they keep getting harder to avoid.

Finally noticing the wear on our quarter-century-old sofa, my wife and I recently wandered through several of the many furniture stores clustered near U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park. At each one, an extremely eager salesman met us at the door on his knees, begging us to take pity and make even a modest purchase or two.

Okay, I exaggerate. A bit. But one lean and literally hungry fellow in one upscale store boldly volunteered — with no coaxing — he had earned less than $700 last month. That's rough, since his rent alone runs $800.

After an unusually enthusiastic teeth cleaning, my dental hygienist beamed at me and explained her summer plans for a family "staycation." That word first started appearing in newspapers around 2005 and at first was a marketing pitch aimed at locals to vacation right where they lived. Now — the word's popped up in the St. Petersburg Times eight times since February — it more often suggests a stay-at-home vacation for the purpose of saving money and gas.

I'm not a regular at Starbucks, but I indulge from time to time. But the company's decision to close 600 stores (six in Tampa Bay), lay off 1,000 and post a quarterly loss? That's akin to a disturbance in the Force. And what gives with Bennigan's closing its doors countrywide so abruptly in the faces of employees and declaring bankruptcy?

You can see it all over. The pain hiding in all that economic data increasingly is visible day to day. It's there in the contrast between the best Tampa ZIP code for real estate — 33606, Davis Islands/Hyde Park — where asking prices are up 15 percent in the past year, and the worst ZIP code — 33573, Sun City Center — where asking prices have dropped 25 percent.

Let's not even grapple with a Bush administration about to depart leaving behind a record $482-billion deficit, the U.S. jobless rate rising, again, this time to 5.7 percent, and the normally Florida-friendly Wachovia economist Mark Vitner declaring the state's economy just shrank for the first time in recent memory.

"The Sunshine State still remains an attractive place to do business but has clearly lost some of its luster in recent years," says Vitner. Floridians get that.

Now come U.S. Census Bureau estimates blaming weak housing and tight credit for a slowdown in the once-torrid migration of people from the North to the South. As in Florida.

I mean places like Chicago actually gained population from 2006 to 2007. It wasn't a fluke. So did places like St. Paul in Minnesota, Green Bay in Wisconsin, Kansas City in Kansas and Grand Rapids in Michigan.

Hot Sun Belt destinations like Phoenix and Dallas are not shrinking, but their pace of growth is down. Ditto with Miami, Orlando and Tampa. In fact, six of the 25 cities losing the most residents were in Florida, the Census Bureau reported in an analysis of cities with more than 100,000 people.

Folks, our cheap, sun-and-fun Florida economy faces another serious transition. Don't sit back and wait for the good ol' days to return. They're long gone.

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

Economy is going south, but people aren't 08/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 4:32am]

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