There are encouraging signs, however small, that Florida is on the rebound from the Great Recession. Statistics trickling in last week from 2011 find bankruptcy filings down and fewer state banks failing. For the first time in six years, more moving vans headed into Florida than out. And the vacancy rate for office space in Tampa Bay dropped to its lowest rate since 2009. This news comes after several months of slowly descending unemployment rates that still remain at 10 percent. Now the challenge for Florida leaders is to build on that momentum, not derail it with poor policy decisions or shortsighted gimmicks.
Florida, of course, isn't alone in this recovery. Bankruptcy filings are down across the country, for example, and the nation's unemployment rate dropped to 8.5 percent in December, the lowest in nearly three years. Florida, a state so dependent on development and growth, will take longer to pull out of this crisis than most.
But there is already a temptation in Florida to assume the best way forward is to revisit the past, with a full-scale resumption of the building industry. Throughout this recession, in fact, state lawmakers have systematically removed barriers to development, making it easier for developers to build homes and strip shopping centers, plan large-scale communities and escape infrastructure impact fees — never mind the huge backlog of vacant and foreclosed properties. Now many of the South Florida building groups are also lining up behind shortsighted plans to build three destination casinos that would hurt efforts to bring high-tech jobs to the state.
A return to uncontrolled growth would impact every Floridian with more congested roads, overrun parks, subpar schools and underfunded public safety. It would be far wiser for leaders, now that the end of the economic collapse may be in sight, to focus on creating jobs across a more balanced spectrum of industries — such as the state's budding biotech community — reviving growth management policies and reinvesting in aging infrastructure and mass transit. Now, too, is the time to reinvest in public schools and higher education, which can contribute more long-term to the state's vitality than almost any other investment.
There appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel, and at this moment it is not an oncoming train. Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators who return to Tallahassee for the annual session on Tuesday will be tempted to look to the past for answers. But Florida's economy is different than just six years ago, and that may be the most exciting prospect of all.