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FLORIDA NEEDS TO REDEFINE ITSELF

If you had read this next sentence one year ago, you'd probably have little idea what it meant. Despite the best efforts of TARP and TALF, managing toxic assets remains a priority of Obamanomics, whose shovel-ready stimulus and Cash for Clunkers programs hope to deliver a reset to this Depression recession, reinflate our 201(k)s, reduce the lopsided pain of the mancession and ease the pre-fired experiences of those seeking their first real jobs. There are 11 new or back-in-vogue vocabulary words in that sentence that last September did not exist or had yet to enter mainstream America's consciousness.

The explosion of so many new terms, phrases, bureaucratic acronyms and urban buzzwords in just the past 12 months is linguistic testimony to the depth of economic trauma this state, nation and world has experienced.

After an extreme year of recession, it may even be time for a new state slogan:

Florida: The FILO State. That's FILO, as in "First In, Last Out."

Michelle Robinson, Verizon's southeast region president in Tampa, agrees. "We will adjust the nature of our work force to the reality of the market - adding employees when necessary to growth areas and reducing the work force in those areas that are not growing," she says.

Many people I talk to, from economists to out-of-work folks, expect Florida's recovery to be slow and painful.

Our economy's fallen and we're not sure when it will get up, or how cracked it might be. Florida faces some big questions:

Has the state economy been so fundamentally affected by the steep recession that it will be incapable of bouncing back and operating just as it did before?

Is the decline in Florida's population of the past year a fluke brought on by high unemployment, extensive home foreclosures and the recent run-up in our cost of living? Should we assume people will simply pour back into Florida once things settle down and housing prices again prove attractive to buyers?

Will Florida ever possess the collective will and political discipline to upgrade its own economy with smarter, better-paying work - or will it default to what it knows best: sunshine, tourism, low-wage jobs and less-than-the-best education of yesteryear?

Consider the responses by some Tampa Bay business leaders who were asked those questions.

Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Tampa's Inkwood Books store and a big supporter of independent and local retailing, says Florida fell harder and farther because of "stubborn reliance on endlessly increasing population and lots of shortsighted and under-regulated sprawl." Some jobs are gone forever, and Jimenez worries where unskilled young people can learn good work habits. Perhaps the green economy, she says.

"It will take creative and principled leadership to find a new way, to look with fresh eyes on opportunities for legitimate and accountable economic development," Jimenez says.

Bigger is not necessarily better, she reminds us.

"I really believe this is an exciting time and that the people of Florida have shown they are ready for a new definition of progress."

That theme of newfound opportunity is echoed at the Tampa Bay Partnership. The seven-county regional marketing group's on a broad push to coordinate Tampa Bay's common interests (including mass transit) in the future with Orlando's. Tampa Bay leaders take great exception to the flurry of recent stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, all suggesting Florida's growth and glory are over.

Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Stuart Rogel concedes Florida is changing, and everyone in the state needs to be prepared for that change. But even before this economic downturn, he says, "we saw that we need to do some things differently, that we could not continue to grow for growth sake and count on that growth for our long-term prosperity."

Longtime area banker David Dunbar, CEO of Synovus Bank of Tampa Bay, says Florida's well past the "swagger times" when 1,250 new residents arrived each day. But, he advises, "Don't turn the lights out just yet."

National demographics - we're talking about retiring baby boomers, especially - bode well for Florida, Dunbar says. "Market forces over time will correct the negative impact on real estate taxes, insurance and employment numbers," he adds. It just may take a while and be a "bumpy ride."

Building an economy based on a constant flow of newcomers can bear an eerie resemblance to what now-jailed huckster Bernie Madoff did on Wall Street. University of Central Florida Sean Snaith economist calls it "Florida's population Ponzi scheme," in which existing Floridians subsist at the expense of newcomers.

So when newcomers stop, the economy tends to crumble - just like a Ponzi scheme.

George Gordon relocated from Silicon Valley in 2001 to become CEO of the online supply chain firm Enporion in Tampa and now helps lead the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. He's skeptical another retiree wave is just around the corner.

"Since most people's retirement accounts are 30-40 percent lighter today than they were a year ago," he says, "they will be working longer than they had planned to, thus reducing the potential population influx that would be considering Florida for retirement."

At Spark, a boutique Tampa advertising firm, partner Tony Miller is bullish on Florida and expects smaller, innovative companies to help pull the state out of its economic funk.

"When you evolve and grow, you need employees," Miller says. "We will finish 2009 with more employees than we started with."

That's no small accomplishment. And it may prove to be as challenging here as putting our Humpty Dumpty economy back together exactly as it was before.

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

Our new economic vocabulary

TALF: "Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility" program created by the Federal Reserve.

TARP: "Troubled Asset Relief Program" is a federal rescue plan to inject taxpayer money into Wall Street firms, banks and other financial institutions to bolster the nation's wavering financial sector amid the subprime mortgage crisis.

Toxic assets: Bank-owned assets whose value has dropped so much and is so uncertain that there is no functioning market for them.

Obamanomics: Blend of Obama and economics. The economic policies of President Barack Obama.

Shovel-ready: Project ready for laborers to immediately start working.

Cash for Clunkers: Federal subsidy program, now over, meant to encourage swapping older vehicles for newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Reset: A complete, national "do-over" of the U.S. economy marked by less debt, less leverage and less conspicuous consumption.

Depression recession: When the recession is so like a Depression, it's depressing.

201(k)s: What the stock market crash did to your 401(k).

Mancession: This recession disproportionately hurt men who tend to work at jobs like construction and manufacturing most affected by layoffs.

Pre-fired: Losing your job before it starts, as in "I got a job offer when I graduated but was pre-fired before I even arrived the first day."

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