It's that time of year in Florida. January ushers in playoff football, Northern visitors and, as always, a flurry of economic and political predictions about the year ahead.
The Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce brought together four prognosticators Wednesday for its Focus on 2015 breakfast.
Speakers on topics ranging from tourism to jobs to construction to politics were generally upbeat. But there was at least one grave warning served up along with sausage links and eggs: The Interstate 4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando won't get much of a respite from the negative political ads that dominated 2014.
Here are some other insights and predictions dished out.
Vice president of global brand at Visit Florida
• Florida tourism will jump 30 percent over the next five years, pushing the annual number of Florida visitors to 123 million. That's a half-million visitors a day more than current levels.
The pressures on keeping up the influx will force the state to adjust from "destination marketing" to "destination management," Costello said.
• International growth will lead the way. Beyond Florida's top four sources of travelers — Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Brazil — look for Mexico to be a growing pipeline for visitors. With added air travel capacity in Miami, direct arrivals from Mexico are expected to jump 10.5 percent this year.
• One country, in particular, promises to have the single-biggest impact in Florida and beyond. Its visitors spend $6,000 to $7,000 apiece when they come to the United States. "China will be in our future," Costello said. "Within five years they will be the dominant source of travelers in the world."
Director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness
• There are nearly 6 million sidelined workers who haven't been actively looking for a job and therefore aren't included in the falling unemployment rate. At the current pace of job growth, it would take until 2018 to recover. "That's why people don't feel as happy as those unemployment numbers suggest they should," Snaith said.
• Florida's "remarkable" turnaround from a much longer and much deeper recession than the rest of the country will continue, with the state outpacing the country in job growth this year. Construction, tourism and health care will be the major building blocks.
• Tampa Bay's economy won't grow as fast as the state average in part because of its large financial services sector. Hiring for many in financial services firms remains "stuck in neutral" as they continue to wait for rule-making details on how the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act will affect their business, Snaith said.
Professor of public administration and political science at the University of South Florida
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• Fresh off a bitter gubernatorial race and midterm elections, positioning for the 2016 presidential race will pick up quickly this year. With a 1 percent differential between winners and losers in Florida in the last three election cycles — and Florida's growing electoral influence — the I-4 corridor will once more be a major focus for political advertising.
• The economy will continue to dominate voters' minds and ballots. Recent polling showed 30 percent of Floridians still view the economy/jobs/unemployment as their top concern. "A lot of people are still not convinced we're out of the woods in terms of economic recovery," MacManus said.
• The political parties are in trouble. MacManus cited polls showing the number of Florida voters identifying themselves as independents has risen to 43 percent.
Steve Cona III
President and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors' Florida Gulf Coast Chapter
• Construction, the hardest-hit industry during the recession, will continue its surging rebound with all types of construction activity up 7.4 percent on average this year.
• At least through the middle of the year, the downward spiral of gas prices will continue to drive down raw material costs — everything from asphalt to iron to lumber to crude petroleum — an incentive for builders. "It's a great time to build," Cona said.
• A huge shortage of construction workers looms as the workforce ages. Nearly 21 percent of skilled construction workers are 55 or older, and 29 percent are between 45 and 54 years old. Notes Cona: "We're not replacing those people fast enough." A need for more workers will be particularly acute in the bay area with the launch of major construction projects from downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport.