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Economic forecast has clouds

It's the kind of statistic that is pure gold to Chamber of Commerce officials.

You can already see it showing up in marketing brochures: During the next 14 years, Hernando County is projected to average an annual job growth rate of 4.1 percent _ second-highest in the state, according to a forecast released last week by the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Only Flagler County, with an estimated 5.0 percent annual job growth rate, ranked higher.

Before you celebrate, though, keep in mind that the statistic doesn't tell the full story of Hernando's economy _ just the better half.

Another key element to the bureau's annual forecast is average income per household, which economists use to measure standard of living. And by that indicator, Hernando is at the bottom of the barrel:

Among the state's small metropolitan counties, Hernando had the lowest income per household in 1995 _ $40,929. Collier County had the highest with $78,437.

And not much improvement is expected by 2010. By then, it is predicted that Hernando's income per household will climb to $48,478, slightly ahead of Pasco, Lake and Osceola counties but far below the estimated state average of $67,122.

"I think there has been an excessive focus on job growth and population growth when talking about growth in Florida," said David Lenze, one of two University of Florida economists who prepared the forecast, developed through a computer model.

"What really matters to the public is how well off they are. . . . Hernando County is one of the fastest-growing in terms of job-growth rates.

"But when you look at income rates, it's below the state average. . . . That indicates that things are not as good as they could get in that county."

A key reason for the low income per household is the county's high concentration of retirees, who generally receive less income than workers, Lenze said. Those 65 and older account for 31 percent of the county's population, which won't change by 2010, according to the study.

Other explanations for Hernando's relatively low income per household are that it is a "small metropolitan county" where "the cost of living is lower, and there's less crime and less congestion" than bigger counties such as Hillsborough, Lenze said.

Other tidbits about Hernando from the forecast:

By 2010 construction is projected to add 900 jobs, but manufacturing only 100; services and retail trade combined will account for nearly 12,000 new jobs.

Population would rise to 188,000 in 2001, up from 118,600 in 1995.

During the same period, most age groups under 54 would see a decline in share of total population, with the biggest drop in the 20-39 age category, from 19 percent to 15 percent.

Publix will not say when it might open a proposed store at the northeast corner of Spring Hill Drive and Barclay Avenue in Spring Hill.

In fact, the company won't even confirm that is looking at the site, even though Plant City developer Windsor-Thomas Group has submitted preliminary plans to the county that name Publix as an anchor tenant for a 54,000-square-foot shopping center at that location.

The center would be south of Powell Middle School and just west of the future Suncoast Parkway.

But Publix spokeswoman Jennifer Bush said, "We have not announced any new sites in Hernando County at all."

Only when the company signs a lease does it announce a store opening, Bush said.

The Lakeland-based grocery store chain has five stores in Hernando County.

_ Richard Verrier can be reached at (352) 848-1434 or verriersptimes.com by e-mail.

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