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A bumpy year for business

The past year, full of worries about terrorism and the economy, has distressed local business owners.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002


The past year, full of worries about terrorism and the economy, has distressed local business owners.

ZEPHRYHILLS -- Time hasn't been on Hulan Nasworthy's side lately.

"On Aug. 31 of last year I went into the aircraft maintenance business," he said. "But there wasn't any."

Just 11 days after he invested $300,000 in a hangar at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, terrorists attacked the United States, bruising an economy already headed for a tailspin.

At Nasworthy Flight School, there was a sharp drop in demand for flying lessons. Fewer people were willing to shell out $3,500 to get a pilot's license.

The maintenance business has since gained altitude, but the planes at his flight school are in the air about half as much as a year ago.

"I'm not sure if it's because of Sept. 11 or it's the same reason why my IRA is about half as what it was," Nasworthy said.

"A lot of it has got to be the economy. When money gets tight and there are so many people out of work, you've got to give up your toys because you got to buy groceries."

Like many Pasco business owners, Nasworthy says it's difficult to untangle the effects of Sept. 11 from those of economic trouble.

Since the county's economy doesn't revolve around a single industry, and nearly a quarter of personal incomes are Social Security and disability checks, Pasco wasn't shaken as big cities and tourist destinations were.

But the tragedy and economic trouble did hit home. The effects are as varied as Pasco's own business base. And there's a theory to support every sales trend.

One thing is for sure: Pasco's jobless ranks have swelled.

Unemployment claims filed by Pasco residents are up 27 percent in the first seven months of this year, compared to last. Pasco ties with Pinellas County for the biggest jump in Tampa Bay.

TOURISM: Even after air travel was allowed, people were slow to return to the skies. That put a damper on Pasco's tourism industry.

"It had a definite impact, particularly on Saddlebrook and Paradise Lakes Resort," said Honey Rand, who coordinates Pasco's tourism marketing. "Both of those depend on people flying in."

By January, tourists started to trickle back.

Still, the taxes Pasco collects from hotel stays will add up to just $600,000 this year, far below the expected $800,000.

"Although we're down, it could have been much worse," Rand added.

Al Martinez-Fonts, Saddlebrook's marketing director, blames the slowdown on the sagging economy. Reservations for corporate meetings, 80 percent of bookings, started to diminish four months before the attacks. Now they are climbing back.

"Our sales people are seeing the activity now," he said.

Alex Scala, owner of the Holiday Inn Express in Port Richey, refocused his marketing toward local businesses needing rooms for out-of-town workers.

Now, he says, bookings are picking up.

"And thank goodness," Scala said.

RETAIL SALES: Immediately after the attacks, auto companies launched zero percent financing offers, sparking big demand for new cars. National experts now expect sales to approach the record levels of previous years.

Tom Castriota, owner of Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson, said many customers left cars with 90,000 miles that they would have held onto otherwise, and upgraded to more luxurious models.

"We see a lot of people going into Suburbans and Tahoes that were in smaller SUVs," he said.

At Wal-Mart in New Port Richey, customers drifted more toward the bare necessities.

"People are buying more basic merchandise; they're not buying the clothing like they usually would," said manager Eric Hirons. "They're sticking to basics (such as) toilet paper and toothpaste."

Demand for one thing hasn't ebbed:

"Anything red, white and blue" blows off the shelves, Hirons said.

"It's not like last year, but it's still selling like crazy."

REAL ESTATE SALES: The housing market has been the one corner of the economy untarnished by the events of the past year. Record-low mortgage rates, available land, plus the buildout of surrounding counties, added up to record sales of new and existing homes in Pasco.

"At this point, it's still on fire," said Bob Memoli of Florida Luxury Realty in New Port Richey. "A lot of people are starting to jump out of the stock market and buy some investment properties, but the regular homes are still selling well if they're priced correctly."

MANUFACTURING: Pasco's diverse group of manufacturers saw big ups and downs.

Companies that supply the housing industry thrived, while those with any link to the travel industry struggled.

Feeling the squeeze was Zeagle Systems, a 23-year-old maker of scuba gear in Zephyrhills. Sales plummeted by more than 30 percent. Owner Dennis Bulin cut production by 60 percent and laid off 15 of his 75 workers. Management staff took a voluntary pay cut and for remaining workers, shifts shrank to 25 hours a week from 40.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," Bulin said. "We went into a very severe austerity program. We made sure the lights weren't turned on when they didn't need to be. We did everything we could possibly do to cut expenses."

Sales are slowly creeping back to where they were last year, and Bulin has refilled about 10 positions. "We're rebuilding," he said.

Robertson Display, which makes jewelry displays for retailers, already had planned to lay off workers and move production to El Salvador when the terrorists attacked.

The event worsened already slow sales. The plant in El Salvador is being prepared to open, but owner Lex Robertson couldn't keep the skeleton crew of 12 at his Port Richey headquarters as planned. Now, it's Robertson, his son, and one employee.

"We had to do something or go out of business," Robertson said.

"Hopefully it will all turn out okay eventually. It's just a very difficult time right now."

-- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblatt@sptimes.com.

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