The economic downturn experienced by the Southeast's construction industry has certainly had a profound effect on the industry. People have been tossed from their careers, companies have gone out of business, and expectations have shifted drastically.

For the last few years, reading the latest forecast numbers for the Southeast's construction industry has kind of been like being a Cubs fan in advance of opening day. Hope always springs eternal, but once the season starts, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not going to be that special year, after all.

For at least part of the Southeast's construction industry, however, last year was a fairly special year. That's because two of the four states covered by ENR Southeast, Georgia and South Carolina, actually saw improving fortunes in 2011. According to McGraw-Hill Construction--publisher of ENR Southeast--2011 was the first time in a long time for both of these states where the overall value of new contracts ticked up. For Georgia, which saw an overall 2011 gain of 13%, it had been 2006 since things last got better. South Carolina, which experienced a 14% improvement last year, had last seen an increase in 2007.

That was kind of big-but-quiet news for the Southeast construction economy. After all, it was the first time in quite awhile that any state in the region saw improving prospects.

However, going back a year and reviewing the forecast for 2011, the predictions for both of these states had been even more positive. In fact, MHC economists had forecast a 40% overall jump for Georgia, and an even rosier 43% gain for South Carolina in 2011. (While those numbers sound incredible, it should be remembered that construction markets across the nation were at very low levels compared to recent years. So a big percentage number may sound more incredible than it really is, and, in fact, may not even return the market to the levels of recent years, for example.)

Which brings me to the 2012 forecast. More or less, it's positive. MHC is predicting an increase in the value of new contracts for three of the four states, with only North Carolina forecast to once again decline. At the same time, industry officials, such as Bill Anderson with ABC in Atlanta, and Mark Wylie, with Central Florida ABC in Orlando, are seeing a decidedly "flat" market for 2012. And AGC of America's 2012 forecast is for a "mixed" year. Based on a survey of member firms, AGC says, "the industry is not likely to experience a recovery until at least 2013, despite some growing positive trends."

Maybe those "growing positive trends" are what "recovery" looks like?

For the Southeast, McGraw-Hill Construction is generally upbeat. A 9% overall gain is forecast for Florida, for instance, with improvement expected in the residential and nonresidential building sectors. MHC expects the overall value of Georgia contracts to surge and more than double overall, thanks mostly to significant activity in the power markets. (Again, MHC's figures are based on the value of new contracts. So, a multi-billion-dollar power project, for example, will have a large impact because its complete project value will be tallied into the new year's total.)

According to their outlook, MHC economists further expect North Carolina contracts to decline by 9% overall in 2012, but see South Carolina's improving again, this time by about 12%.

Personally, I feel industry officials are possibly being too pessimistic in their thinking, and that these generally upbeat numbers from the economists may prove closer to how 2012 will actually play out for the region's contractors. In fact, there's part of me that thinks the economists are also underestimating industry performance.

The national economy seems to be improving. Lately, there was surprising--though still insufficient--improvement in job growth. (Though contractors are definitely still struggling.) And some folks, such as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, are beginning to wonder if official economic projections are overly pessimistic.

In Florida, for instance, in a positive sign for private-sector investment, hospitality owners are beginning to move forward on major projects. Major retail projects are beginning to pop up, too, and even the multifamily sector is coming back to life.

It's early, though. And maybe I'm being like the baseball fan who still has the hope of opening day. But I think a rebound is on the way.

It'd be great to hear the thoughts of other folks in the industry. What do you think? Am I wrong? Or do you possibly see it that way, too? I encourage you to share your thoughts below.