2016 economic forecast: External factors could slow Florida, Polk’s momentum

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By John Ceballos
The Ledger
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2016 at 11:08 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 14, 2016 at 11:08 a.m.
LAKELAND — Florida’s economy ended 2015 on a high note, and Polk County helped set the tone.

“The state is leading the nation in employment growth and the Lakeland area is leading the state,” said Tony Villamil, co-founder of the Washington Economics Group in Coral Gables.

Villamil was one of two featured speakers during the 29th Annual Economic Forecast Breakfast, which took place at the Lakeland Center from 7 to 9 a.m. and was attended by more than 600 members of Polk’s business community.

Brian Wesbury, chief economist for Illinois-based First Trust Advisors, once again followed Villamil at the podium. Wesbury and Villamil were also the featured speakers at last year’s Economic Forecast Breakfast. Wesbury has been attending the event long enough to detect a massive change in Lakeland’s restaurant offerings.

“The first time I came here, I think it was 23 or 24 years ago, Lakeland did not look how it looks now,” Wesbury said. “I think I found a TGIF to eat at.”

Wesbury related an anecdote about a recent fishing trip that taught him the difference between an adventure and an ordeal.

“The answer is ‘attitude,'” Wesbury said. “It is unbelievable for an outsider who comes here once a year to watch the progress that has been made. Some of you may have lived through an ordeal and some of you may have lived through an adventure, but the bottom line is that when we human beings are left free, we accomplish amazing things.

“This community is a perfect example of that,” he said.

Wesbury’s presentation focused on the role of government and the private sector in the economy.“The government is growing faster than the private sector and it’s sucking the life out of it,” Wesbury said. He added that although the U.S. economy has grown in the last 6½ years, it has done so at a slower rate because of excessive government interference. “That’s why we’re a plow-horse economy and not a race-horse economy.”

The Economic Forecast Breakfast is presented by the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce and Allen & Company of Florida.

“It is our aim every year to bring to you speakers that can help you with your organization, whether you’re a nonprofit, a corporate, or government entity,” said Keith Albritton, president and CEO of the Lakeland-based Allen & Company. “Whatever your organization might be, our goal is for you to have better information this year with which to make decisions.”

Albritton said he examined the projections made last year by Wesbury and Villamil.

“Nobody can get them perfect every year, that’s not possible,” Albritton said. “But in the field of economics, what we’re looking for is someone who can help us be directionally right and not absolutely wrong.

“The quality of our speakers is the utmost of our concern, and last year they did an excellent job.”

Villamil praised the Lakeland-Winter Haven metropolitan area, which comprises all of Polk County, for having one of the nation’s top business climates, singling out the region’s pro-growth business community and pro-growth legislature.

He referenced the latest figures from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which revealed that total non-agricultural employment in Polk increased last year by 4.1 percent.

On the other hand, sluggish gains in the global economy — notably the deep recession in Brazil, a top 10 economy in the world — could temper the state and county’s momentum, according to Villamil.

“What we see for 2016 is very strong growth in Florida, again outpacing the nation, perhaps at a slower rate of growth than we saw in 2015,” he said.

— John Ceballos can be reached at john.ceballos@theledger.com or 863-802-7515.