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Tampa Bay businesses warned to 'tighten belts'

First there was growth. Then there was prosperity. And now comes theshakeout.

While the long-term future bodes well for the Tampa Bay area, local business leaders Friday warned companies to prepare for more difficult economic times this year and next. Overbuilding and new government regulations are combining to slow down construction. And the fact that fewer people are moving into the state is beginning to separate the weak firms from the strong.

"Tighten your belts for the next year or so," developer Mandell "Hinks" Shimberg said in a speech at the fourth annual Business Leaders Conference. "Then prepare for a future where Tampa Bay soars into the 21st century."

What was intriguing about the speakers' remarks Friday was not so much what was said but who said it. Economists have said for more than a year that difficult times lay ahead. But now, even area boosters like Shimberg (a past president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and now chairman of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) joined the chorus.

Companies must learn to operate in a "healthy but not as explosive a climate of growth," Shimberg said. "We are at the bottom of a business cycle" and the markets can only improve.

But state Rep. Jeff Huenink, R-Clearwater, warned that Florida's dismal record in education leaves the state unprepared.

"We do not have, nor are we producing, the workers we need for the growth in Florida," Huenink said, noting that the state ranks 49th in the nation in the number of high school graduates and 40th in adult literacy.

But the immediate worries of Friday's speakers centered on the state's new growth management law. Allan McLeod, president of Barnett Bank of Tampa, said the law is causing uncertainty in the development industry.

"Growth management will have a dramatic effect on real estate development in Florida," the bank executive said. "And it is reasonable to assume there will be some painful experiences."

The law bans local government from approving development until the roads, sewers and other services are in place to handle it.