SIGNS OF RECOVERY; A Times-Union Study of the 21 Economic Indicators for the Jacksonville Area Suggests the Area Is on the Upswing, but Those Prone to Hand-Wringing Will Find Much to Worry about, Including a Few Negative Indicators. below Are Six of the Indicators. for More, Look for This Story on Jacksonville.Com. Unemployment Has Leveled, Home Sales Are Up, and Shoppers Are Back at the Mall

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Byline: KEVIN TURNER

After enduring the ravages of an economic downturn for nearly three years, the Jacksonville area's economy is well into a pronounced upswing.

An array of indicators provides data - over several months in some cases - to show a resurgence that outpaces other parts of Florida by some measures, prompting economic forecasters to predict a positive if uneven recovery will continue in coming months.

While the region is far from being out of the woods - real estate prices remain stubbornly low, for example - the majority of commonly used indicators appear to be headed in the right direction.

- Unemployment, though high, has leveled and begun to decline in recent weeks - if only modestly.

- Home sales are up, as are housing starts, after both were in steady decline in recent years.

- The area is adding jobs, with an increase of 6,000 in February and March, after losing 56,800 jobs since May 2007.

- Area hotels have seen increases in occupancy at a rate not seen in a year and a half.

- Another key measure, the Local Economic Indicators Project at the University of North Florida, is approaching pre-recession levels and has shown resurging strength for two consecutive months for the first time since early 2007.

But, even with high unemployment, Henry Luke, a strategic planning consultant, says recent Florida Agency for Worksource Innovation job creation data and federal per capita income data spells a sustained retreat in the abysmal jobless numbers.

Jacksonville is in a rather strong position to recover, Luke says, as he points to federal data showing that per-capita income - the average total income a person receives from all sources, including one's job, rental income and government entities - is better in Jacksonville than in Tampa and Orlando, and that it has grown at a rate stronger than Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta and the U.S. average.

The city's income growth curve flattened from 2006 to 2008, but the metro area's per-capita income had increased from about $30,000 in 2000 to about $40,000 in 2008, according to information from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida, predicts the Jacksonville area will "see strong growth in most of the economic indictors, relative to the rest of the state," over the next three years.

Indeed, Snaith expects this area's employment growth to be 2 percent annually for three years, with only the Orlando area expected to create jobs at a faster pace.

NOT ALL GOOD NEWS

Even so, while the majority of 21 Jacksonville economic indicators reviewed by the Times-Union suggests stronger economic health, those prone to hand-wringing will find much to worry about, including a few negative indicators.

Also, many of the sunny spots among the data mix come with caveats attached. An early 2010 surge in home sales could have been due mostly to a federal first-time homebuyer's tax credit that expired April 30 - and prices still sag. A drop in foreclosure filings is likely due to a Florida Supreme Court order that those cases go first through mediation.

A major troubling measure - unemployment - remains well above 10 percent. But the unemployment rate, as adjusted by the University of North Florida Local Economic Indicators Project (LEIP), dropped in March for the first time since September 2008.

The jobless rate has climbed steadily since the 2008 economic meltdown. For perspective about how far the area is from better economic times, consider that unemployment in the Jacksonville metropolitan area was holding at 3.1 percent in the spring of 2007.

LEIP's index of indicators includes new orders for consumer goods, new orders for capital goods, consumer confidence, average work week hours, help wanted advertising, building permits and new applications for unemployment benefits. …