Florida from Cities to Citrus Groves, the Economy of the Sunshine State Is Looking Brighter

Article excerpt

When the intrepid explorer Juan Ponce de Leon set sail from Spain, his royal mandate was clear: bring back to the crown gold and silver from the New World. What he found when he touched the sandy shore of Florida were riches of a different sort: restorative springs, abundant hunting and fishing grounds, vast wetlands and flowers aplenty -- hence the name "Florida."

From the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast, Florida's natural treasures, while forsaken by the Spanish conquistadors -- and by overzealous developers and businesses in more recent times -- have become the state's economic fulcrum. Nearly 40 million visitors to Florida's sunny climate pumped over $29 billion into the economy during 1991. And despite the disruption caused by Hurricane Andrew this past August, September recorded its largest increase in visitors per month over the previous year, reports the Florida Division of Tourism. Boosted by an improved national economy and lower airfares, tourism is projected to grow by 7 percent in 1993 to roughly 44 million visitors. "This is due in part to the unrivaled entertainment and amusement complex of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and MGM Studios, which continues to be a world-class destination," adds Stan Geberer, an analyst with the Orlando-based economic forecasting firm Fishkind & Associates Inc.

Tourism continues to be the locomotive that drives the Orlando area economy, accounting for close to 113,000 jobs. In 1991, over 13 million visitors to the city and its environs spent more than $5 billion. Nearly 10,000 meetings and trade shows attracted over 1.3 million delegates, resulting in an estimated economic impact of $1 billion on the Orlando area, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. With an average of 800 commercial operations per day and over 18 million passengers annually, Orlando International Airport is the 28th busiest airport in the world and 18th busiest in the United States.

Apart from beaches and tourist attractions, Florida boasts a thriving agricultural sector. A $6 billion industry statewide, agriculture supports between 200,000 and 300,000 production, processing, packing and service-oriented jobs. Citrus products contribute roughly $2 billion to that industry's total. However, as a result of Hurricane Andrew, this past year's avocado and lime crops were wiped out, reports the Florida Department of Agriculture. The good news is that the storm did not affect the winter vegetable crop, and most tropical fruits that were destroyed can be replanted relatively easily. Aside from limes, the citrus crop was spared Andrew's wrath. Florida residents appear to be as hopeful about their economic futures as they were before the recession began, University of Florida economists report, based upon continuing increases in the state's consumer confidence index. And Floridians have good reason. The state has experienced four months of sustained, positive growth in total non-agricultural employment (which topped 5.3 million last December), increasing retail sales and decreasing initial claims for unemployment compensation, according to the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security. And with figures indicating that the unemployment rate had already peaked in 1992, most prognosticators believe that the recession has drawn to a close in Florida.

Expected increases of 300,000 in the state's population to nearly 14 million by the beginning of next year should further fuel the recovery, according to Florida's Office of Planning and Budgeting in Tallahassee. The continuing population shift from other parts of the country to the Sunshine State should help improve in particular the commercial construction industry's economic bottom line for years to come. The Florida Association of Realtors reports that single-family housing starts Already are up, while the rebuilding of hurricane-ravaged Dade County may provide a temporary boon to the industry. …