SEBRING – The openings are outpacing the closings, and overall, despite a first-quarter contracting of the U.S. economy, business is holding steady around Highlands County.
According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and Bureau of Labor statistics, Highlands County generated just over $211 million in wages as of December 2013.
Those incomes have come through what local business people and economic forecasters call robust summer and winter consumer markets in Sebring, Avon Park and Lake Placid.
Friday, the Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) announced the opening or relocation of 10 businesses into the downtown Sebring CRA district over the last three to four months.
Casey Wohl, who promotes Sebring’s downtown for the Community Redevelopment Agency, said among the growth and changes was the May closing of The Mermaid’s Castle, 130 N. Ridgewood Ave., an arts and collectibles shop, and the movement of CrossFit fitness club, 916 Persimmon Ave., to Sebring Square at Kenilworth Boulevard and Lakeview Drive.
In addition, Sheila’s Corner Market, 407 N. Ridgewood Drive, and Crossfit received incentive grant funds from the Sebring CRA to help with interior and exterior building improvements. Sheila’s got $2,328 for facade improvements and Crossfit got $8,000 from the Sebring CRA Downtown Advantage Program.
A few blocks south, both a shaker and a mover, Lora Todd, owner of Dogtown, USA, said moving from 112 N. Ridgewood Ave. to the town circle at 205 Circle Park Drive, has allowed her to increase her square footage from 800 to 1,700 square feet while generating more foot traffic into her store. She said she hoped to be up and running by August with a more storage room for supplies.
“There are a lot more people walking by; I feel there’s a good economy and there are businesses that have been here a long time and most are holding their own, even in the slower summer months.”
Wohl said having a new Family Dollar at 620 N. Ridgewood Ave. is a sign of corporate growth in the area outside of the U.S. 27 corridor.
“I think a lot of people are realizing the value of being downtown, especially the small businesses,” she said. “I think smaller businesses get lost on (U.S.) 27 but they can find a good niche market in the downtown area.”
According to the employment and wages statistics, Highlands County generated $27.4 million in retail trade wages in 2013, second to healthcare and social assistance, which produced $58.3 million.
North to Avon Park, Tori Trinder, executive director of the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce, said the city has seen economic improvement over the past fiscal year. At the end of 2012-13, city assets exceeded liabilities by a net $37.7 million, according to the city’s annual independent auditor’s report.
Among business growth over the past six months, has been the opening of Del-Costa Florist, 2523 U.S. 27, and a new Mexican restaurant at the former Florida Power and Light building on Main Street.
Also, Market 27 deli and convenience store, 2830 U.S. 27, is moving into the former Club Sierra’s, 2951 N. U.S. 27, and Oishie Burger, Sebring, is poised to move into the former Harold’s Hamburger restaurant, 201 S. U.S. 27 by mid-July or early August.
“We seem to be bounding back over last year,” said Trinder, who coordinates interaction between the chamber’s approximately 200 business members. “There’s a lot more interest in moving to Avon Park. I’m fielding a lot of questions from people looking to put businesses in, so that’s good.”
In Highlands County, annual average wages were $30,000; $40,800 in Florida. The statewide unemployment rate was 6.3 percent statewide as of May, 7.1 percent in Highlands County.
South to Lake Placid, town councilwoman Debra Worley, who started a farmer’s flea market the second week of January in front of the Lake Placid Tower, said corporate and individual growth is also progressing.
A Dunkin’ Donuts is on track to open in the former Burger King restaurant, 195 U.S. 27, and the New 2 U Thrift Store is relocating from 403 U.S. 27 to 361 Interlake Blvd., downtown Lake Placid. Chef Buddy’s sandwiches is also relocating from 204 N. Main St. to 381 Interlake Blvd.
Worley said the only significant closing has been the Emmanuel Bible-Book Shop, 125 U.S. 27, since its owner’s retirement in May.
“We have two seasons. In in the winter, the northerners come down and like to get up and do things and shop and be active around downtown and spend money,” said Worley, a licensed real estate broker who has served the town for 12 years. “The summer people that come are mostly from south Florida. They’re normally here for the water sports. They go to the grocery stores, the shelves are cleared out and you really don’t see them.”
Stephen Weeks, executive director of the Highlands County Economic Development Commission, said he feels “positive” about the county’s economic growth because there is a “pent-up” demand for jobs and there’s a lot of money “on the books” for investment.
“A lot of people need work and there are a lot of major companies out here that have a lot of money that needs to be put into service,” he said. “The economy is going to uplift.”
Due to an unusually cold winter, national economic growth has now been revised down by 3 percentage points since the government’s first estimate was published in April, which had the economy expanding at a 0.1 percent rate, according to the Bureau of Labor.