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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 12 months ago

Economic Forecast 2018

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A Movie with Swagger
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Prolific area homebuilder Pat Neal, when talking about the economy, sometimes speaks in terms of movies: He's been building homes since 1970, so he's seen the recession movie at least five times, he likes to say.

In Neal's telling, then, the 2018 economy on Florida's Gulf Coast will be in the lead to win Best Picture.

“Things are as good this year as they've been any year of the 47 years I've been a homebuilder,” says Neal. He cites a positive economy, low taxes and a burst of demand coming at a time of low supply as the key reasons for optimism.

Viggo Nielsen, general manager at food inspection equipment manufacturer Mettler-Toledo, is also high on 2018. Mettler-Toledo is opening a new facility in Hillsborough County next year — a project that will require up to 150 new employees. “It's tough to see how 2018 can go wrong,” Nielsen says.

That kind of enthusiasm is a consistent theme in more than a dozen interviews with business leaders and executives from Polk to Collier County. The interviews, for the Business Observer's annual economic forecast issue, also showcase the resiliency of entrepreneurs in the face of several obstacles, from Hurricane Irma to the topsy-turvy first year of Trump Administration.

On the latter, while the stock market booms to record levels and multiple regulations from the Obama Administration get pared back, several business leaders worry about the impact of pending tax reform. (Some executives also lament Trump's failure to lead a repeal of ObamaCare — a hope that drove optimism in our last economic forecast issue.)

Cathy Swanson, CEO at St. Petersburg-based Freedom Bank, says a corporate tax cut could be positive, in general, for banks and the business community. Jean Baudrand, chief development officer of FSC Inc., parent company of the Brass Tap and Beef O'Brady's restaurant brands, is likewise is hopeful tax cuts will lead to more reinvestment.

But tax reform could have losing sides, too. Charlotte County attorney Jill McCrory, for example, worries that her firm's estate tax work will be crushed if the bill guts that portion of the tax code. Other business leaders worry that tax reform will do little for the middle and lower class, and that, in turn, will stall any economic growth.

In talking about tax cuts, Southwest Florida architect Fabian Behague, managing principal at Fort Myers-based Artefact Studio, recalls his native Belgium — where high taxes, he says, regularly smother businesses. And in talking about the economy, Behague recalls the period a decade ago, where “empty lots” all over town punctuated the business community. Now, adds Behague, “things have been doing really well,” and he expects that script to play out that way in 2018.

Sounds like a great movie.

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