SEBRING Officially, America’s Great Recession of 2008 only lasted a year.
Unofficially, Highlands County’s great recession may have ended last year.
Sales tax collections in FY 2011-12 show the county is just $300,000 behind FY 2003-04, the last pre-boom year.
“In 2004, and 2005, we had the terrible hurricanes,” said Norm Stephens, president of South Florida State College. Those boom years, fueled by FEMA and insurance dollars, paid for home and business repairs and new construction.
“If we’re back to that level, that is good news,” Stephens said. “That was a mini-boom due to the tragedy that was the hurricanes.”
President John Shoop said Highlands Independent Bank is seeing an uptick in small business and real estate loans.
“We’re seeing more activity too – and I feel confident in saying this – more movement on the commercial side,” said RE/Max Realty Plus broker Chip Boring. “If commercial is moving, somebody is creating business and creating jobs.”
“We’re back to about 1999 prices in some cases,” said Ann Pollard, president of Heartland Board of Realtors. The market is still dominated by foreclosures, but instead of the 24 months of inventory real estate agents saw in 2010, there’s now just 7.2 months.
“But we’re definitely seeing an increase in calls – buyers who are looking – and we’re definitely seeing sales,” Pollard said.
“We’re seeing slow and steady growth,” said Don Elwell, director of sales and marketing for the Alan Jay Automotive Network. “These are not the best of times, but if you delete those aberration (boom) years, we’re trending like we were before.”
The pre-boom years were actually quite good years of slow growth, he said. “We were slowly growing.”
College enrollment is counter-cyclical, Stephens said. “Enrollment is dropping, which it tends to do when people go back to work.”
There are fewer students in skilled trades: plumbing, electrical and heating-air conditioning, but employment is up 23.5 percent in students seeking degrees versus 2007.
Average annual wages have climbed from $25,798 to $29,296 from 2005 to 2011, said Alan Grimes, director of information and technology at Heartland Workforce.