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County's economy is strong and growing
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Stories highlighting 2005, along with future plans for Pinellas County and its municipalities can be found in the special edition "Pinellas Perspective 2006," inside this week's Tampa Bay Newspaper's print publications..
PINELLAS COUNTY – Florida’s economy and the future business outlook is booming, despite a rash of hurricanes, skyrocketing fuel costs and a Red Tide plague in the Gulf of Mexico that was expected to sour the state’s tourist industry.

A business retention survey by Pinellas County Economic Development predicts a very strong next three years.

Stacey Swank, the agency’s business development manager, said the survey was designed to identify the needs and priorities of local businesses. The county group conducted 96 personal surveys from October 2004 to last September.

“Our future is very bright,” she said. “The survey helps establish our future priorities.”

About 52 percent of those polled were manufacturers, with 71 percent headquartered in Pinellas County.

Almost 100 percent agreed that Pinellas County is a favorable place to do business, with half using local suppliers. They rated at 77 percent the ability of local suppliers to meet expectations.

More than 60 percent of the companies export materials, import or do both. The study said 19 percent will export goods to additional markets over the next three years.

The survey said 60 and 61 percent, respectively, want information about exporting and on trade missions and events.

A surprising 95 percent of all Pinellas County businesses reported higher sales while 77 percent increased product lines.

Another 33 percent increased locations while 47 percent upped facility square footage.

Almost 100 percent of all the businesses surveyed expect an increase in sales for the next three years with 92 percent predicating a boost in product lines.

Another 77 percent expect more research and development.

More than half of the businesses surveyed reported workforce vacancies, but 94 percent expect an increase. About 85 percent are interested in training incentives.

Some 77 percent expect to increase building space over the next three years, with 34 percent predicting additional locations.

Only 14 percent report difficulties in locating growth and expansion facilities within the county.

Although Pinellas County business has swelled to record proportions, there are downsides due to some companies sending work to India, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Call centers are most suitable to offshore threats. Sales and customer services personnel are among the most frequent jobs stuck in this trend, which has the potential to significantly affect the county and state’s employment figures.

Several major call centers have reduced or closed their operations in Pinellas County. Others are reducing staffs and hiring only part time workers to save on payroll, benefits and medical insurance.

Home Shopping Network, the once powerful television retailer based in Pinellas County, has been steadily reducing its full time staff and replacing it with part time “home agents” and workers in the Philippines.

Capital One shuttered its Pinellas County facility about two years ago. Other major companies with overseas call centers include American Express, IBM, Dell and AT&T.

Housing growth has made its mark on the local economy. Low interest rates created a wave of new housing and commercial construction.

Geraldine Campos, assistant director of community development for Clearwater, said her city’s focus is on downtown and residential development.

“We have enjoyed a tremendous growth and there appears to be no end in sight,” Campos said.

Dec. 20 saw yet another groundbreaking ceremony for a new condominium complex. The high-rise building, called Station Square on Cleveland Street, will contain 126 units.

“Pinellas County is built out so there is no land available for development,” Campos said. “That means we must look at under-utilized properties.”

The last two years of major hurricanes, however, have made some wary about Pinellas County.

“Clearwater will always be a strong market for new business and residential projects,” Campus said. “There may be a slight decrease in growth over the next few years, but it will pick up again.”

Pinellas Park has experienced an upsurge in both business and residential development. The premier project is Shoppes at Park Place on Park Boulevard and U.S. 19, which was resurrected from the ruins of a previous shopping mall.

The city has experienced a housing boom of apartments, single-family homes and high-end townhouses. Like most municipalities facing a shortage of land to develop, Pinellas Park is redeveloping property, especially in the Park Boulevard business district. New businesses are creating jobs and drawing shoppers into the city.

Last year’s telephone survey of 829 Pinellas County residents showed that 58 percent gave authorities good grades for promoting tourism. Only 52 percent backed efforts to improve rundown and vacant commercial properties while 94 percent believed that the county needs to preserve open spaces and manage growth.

Pinellas County a decade ago began transitioning to a “buildout” condition. Property values have increased dramatically, making homeownership virtually impossible for some residents.

Local and county officials are looking for ways to change that, but with little success because prices just keep rising.
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