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Meanwhile, the buzz at the barbershop is one of worry

People all over the area share their fears about the economy. Others say it's just media-driven panic.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- It was Martin Schneider's turn in the barber chair but he gladly gave it up. The economy was on his mind and he was on a roll.

"We're going into a recession," the 85-year-old Beverly Hills resident said with certainty. "If things keep up like this, we might not go into a recession, we might go into a depression. I'm pretty pessimistic about the outlook."

One by one, Schneider counted off the national companies that have either laid off employees or closed altogether in the past two months. But the most solid evidence of the moribund economy, he said on Friday, are the local layoffs.

Florida Power laid off 62 workers earlier this week and Metal Industries closed its shop, stripping another 50 jobs from the county. Citing grown competition and the slower sales, Scotty's closed its hardware stores in Inverness and Crystal River.

Two doors down from Fred's Barber Shop on State Road 44, Ralph Contopoulo was lighting a cigarette after lunch at the Village Cafe.

He, too, is keenly aware of the local changes but said the fears are being exaggerated. His motorcycle dealership just saw one of its most successful months ever and sales remain strong.

"The news media is the one that is hyping this," Contopoulo said. "I'm sure we do have a slowdown but it's overhyped."

Manny Dosal, sales manager of Crystal Motor Car Co., agreed. "People are pushing the panic button," he said.

But reports released this week suggest some of the anxiety may not be off base.

The National Association of Purchasing Management reported that manufacturing activity fell to its lowest point in 10 years. The unemployment rate, which is still the lowest in three decades, rose to 4.2 percent last month, reaching a 16-month high.

A week after losing his job at Metal Industries, James Head has applied for several painting jobs but so far has come up empty.

"It's not easy to get work," he said while working his temporary job at a hardware store in Crystal River. "People seem skeptical of hiring. They don't know what's going to happen next."

That feeling has apparently extended to some consumers as well.

Outside Harold's SAS Shoes in the Publix shopping center on U.S. 19, a large banner called attention to the deals inside on Friday. But no one was to be found.

"People are scared," said manager Gail Emery. "With the cost of fuel and prescriptions, how can anyone afford the luxury of shoes?"

Larry White, a retired phone company worker who lives in Inverness, said the waning confidence in the economy is not necessarily a bad thing.

"We've been living pretty high on the hog for the last eight years," he said. "Now people are just getting ready to slow down. We were going too fast in the first place."

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