County officials present upbeat report on local economy

- 4/5/2013

DAYTONA BEACH — Since the onset of the 2007-2009 Great Recession and the slow, uncertain recovery that has followed, Volusia County's quarterly economic update breakfasts often have been exercises in finding the silver lining in otherwise dreary economic numbers.

Not so Friday, where county Economic Development Manager Rob Ehrhardt's latest report on the state of the local economy prompted multiple rounds of applause from the gathering of more than 100 area business leaders and government officials at Daytona Beach International Airport.

With the county's unemployment rate now below 7 percent for the first time in nearly five years, Ehrhardt told the audience, "I don't know how you can look at the 6.9 percent unemployment rate for the month of March and not have a smile on your face."

That wasn't the only reason for cheer in his report.

The number of building permits issued in the county for new homes in the first quarter rose to the highest level since 2008, while employment in the county was up year-over-year across most major industry sectors, with the most notable exception being government hiring, which was down. The number of unemployed workers in the county also fell in the quarter to just over 19,000.

Noting that Volusia County is home to roughly 13,000 businesses, Ehrhardt issued a challenge to local companies: "If each one of you were to add just one job . . . it's not hard to see what would happen."

The increase in new home construction has even had a positive impact on sales of pickup trucks, as more construction workers are getting hired for jobs, Ehrhardt said.

And while many would like to see the pace of recovery in the new home construction market locally to pick up the pace, he said, "controlled growth is not necessarily a bad thing" given the reported shortage of available skilled workers.

Building permits for new commercial construction projects also rose in the first quarter — although only modestly as that sector continues to lag behind the rebound seen on the residential construction side.

"We're moving in the right direction," Ehrhardt said.

The loudest applause came when Rick Karl, the county's director of aviation and economic resources, mentioned the front-page stories in Friday's News-Journal on developers' plans to build an oceanfront Hard Rock Hotel and cafe in Daytona Beach and the Volusia County Council's endorsement of efforts by Space Florida to create a commercial spaceport in southern Volusia County.

"We're in a renaissance," Karl said.