How do you remember 2011? Are you glad it's over? Or did you actually see it as a positive year?

In my opinion, the general feeling I detected about 2011 was one of disappointment. It didn't seem to be the year of recovery that some thought it would be, for instance. And in Florida, it wasn't the year for high-speed rail. At the national level, political bickering and congressional inaction seemed worse than ever.

Shoot, even the guy at my post office said of 2011, "I wasn't a fan."

Here's a specific example of the disappointment I'm talking about. About a year ago, I reported here that McGraw-Hill Construction's construction economists were expecting the volume of new contracts in the Southeast states to tick up nicely during 2011, relative to 2010.

McGraw-Hill's economists expected the following scenarios, which admittedly turned out to be a bit rosy: a 9% overall gain in Florida; a whopping 40% jump in Georgia; and a 43% overall gain in South Carolina. Only North Carolina would be negative, they predicted, but by just 2%.

The year didn't start off so well for Southeast contractors. Through March, for instance, the volume of Florida's new construction contracts was 29% lower than 2010's first quarter. Georgia's total was 30% off 2010's early pace. North Carolina was 34% behind the previous year. South Carolina's total was the least negative, with just a 7% drop compared to 2010.

At that point, it was probably natural for people to think, "Well, so much for 2011. Maybe next year."

A funny thing happened, though. Things got better. In fact, word came today that national retail sales had a record year in 2011, posting the largest annual increase in more than a decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Back in the Southeast, things also picked up. Through November--the latest month for which construction contract data is currently available--two of the region's four states are in positive territory, and by a pretty good margin in both cases.

For instance, through the next-to-last month of the year, McGraw-Hill Construction estimates Georgia's YTD total for new contracts is roughly 13% ahead of 2010's pace, thanks to six straight months of statistical improvement. And South Carolina is 17% ahead of 2010, through November.

Not too shabby, considering the start. Of course, there are still December's numbers to calculate into the final total for 2011, but both states seem poised for their first overall improvement in years.

The other two Southeast states are still negative for the year, but showing signs of life. Florida came back from its disastrous start to the year, and recorded numerous big gains in the latter half of the year to be about 10% behind 2010's pace through November. And North Carolina, which had been in positive YTD territory prior to November, experienced a major decline that month and fell to 3% behind 2010 overall.

Moreover, it appears that new private-sector projects are starting to take off, at least in spots. Numerous South Florida contractors, such as Brad Meltzer, president with KM/Plaza, Miami, are reporting a much-improved market, with hospitality and multifamily seemingly leading the way, but with a dose of retail projects.

What do you think? What do you think about the contract activity numbers above? Are you starting to see some action in your markets? Or, as many readers opined in our recent poll, do you think 2012's just going to bring more of the same?

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