Determined to find out all I could about the what’s happening in Orlando before writing Southeast Construction’s upcoming market report, I accepted an invitation to join 130 Central Florida Chapter Associated Builders and Contractors and Home Builders Association of Metro Orlando members to hear ABC National Chief Economist Aniban Basu share his insights about the economy, the stimulus package and when business will start to pick up again.

Basu’s overall message was hopeful. “The economy is getting better, and that means good things for contractors.” However, his bottom line that things may get worse before they get better and that construction activity may not start humming again until 2014 or 2015, gave members of the audience pause.

Basu maintains with the good comes the bad and too much money leads to trouble. He asserts the American economy now suffers as a result of the good times, with its easy access to money. People made bad decisions and used capital unwisely. Things slowed all over the country. For the first time since 1973, every state in the nation fell into a recession. Contractors worked off projects already in the books, but the ABC National Backlog Average fell 18.3% from November 2008 to November 2009. It dropped in every region, with the deepest decrease in the South, especially Georgia and Florida.

Parts of the country, such as Florida, are fairing worse than others. North and South Dakota and Nebraska’s unemployment rates, for example, all hover below 5%, while Florida’s nears 12%. And when it comes to housing, homes are selling in Toledo, Ohio, but Orlando’s housing market remains in the doldrums. No boom, no bust, Basu proclaimed. Yet who among us living in the Sunshine State would want to move to Fargo or Toledo? Lifestyle counts for something and could ultimately lead us out of this mess.

Florida still has its sunshine. Basu has begun telling folks up North, now is the time to invest and snag a good deal on a Florida condo. As current inventory falls, opportunities to build more properties for aging baby boomers will open up.

“The demographics have not changed,” he said. “They will retire, and Florida will be a prime destination. The market will come back. But we are not at the bottom yet.”

Things could be worse. Basu reported the United States was “quick to jump on the crisis. The stimulus helped protect America from the worst of the downturn.” Even so, calling it a “lousy package,” he maintains the government should have invested more than $135 billion in infrastructure, mostly road surfacing, and, consequently it squandered an opportunity to enhance America’s competitive balance in the world. 

“The community is crying out for infrastructure,” he said. “We are laggards [compared to other nations] when it comes to rail and broadband.” But Basu explains most rail projects were not shovel ready.

With a true recovery still about five years off, what should firms do to survive? “Buy your competitors or steal their star employees,” advised Basu, only partly in jest. He called this a perfect time for grabbing market share, squeezing more productivity out of employees and conserving cash.

Representatives on the panel from Balfour Beatty Construction, McCree General Contractors & Architects and Bright Future Electric acknowledged cutting overhead expenses and payroll. All three were confident they would be ready with an efficient, talented workforce when the economy rebounds, hopefully before 2015.