Speakers upbeat at 30th Economic Forecast Breakfast in Lakeland

LAKELAND – Ralph Allen recalled the time in the spring of 1986 when he was approached about sponsoring a new initiative of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We were very appreciative of the invitation and proceeded with the planning of the event for early 1987,” said Allen, chairman of Allen & Company of Florida.

The event was the first Economic Forecast Breakfast, a yearly collaboration between Lakeland-based Allen & Company of Florida and the Lakeland Chamber. On Thursday, The Lakeland Center hosted the 30th edition of the forecast.

“The objective of the first breakfast was to give business owners and their senior management information to make better business decisions,” Allen said. “That’s the primary purpose today.”

To commemorate the event’s 30-year anniversary, Allen & Company commissioned a 10-minute video from Lakeland-based Indie Atlantic Films.

The video – which was shown in lieu of the traditional local and state forecast from Tony Villamil, co-founder of the Washington Economics Group in Coral Gables – featured input from 15 local and state influencers, including Villamil, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado.

The participants reflected on the region’s evolution throughout the past three decades and offered optimistic views of its future.

“If you look at where we are today and where we are positioned to go in the future, Polk County is at the center of the I-4 corridor, which is really the fulcrum of the biggest swing state in the country,” Putnam said in the video.

“I hope we become a regional and significant entity,” Delgado added. “Believe in this community, give it a chance, take that second or third shot.

“Take what has been given to you from a historic perspective, which is a great foundation, and build on it.”

Brian Wesbury, a fixture at the Economic Forecast Breakfast for 25 years, served as the keynote speaker and was presented with a key to the city of Lakeland by Mayor Howard Wiggs. He is the chief economist for First Trust Advisors, an Illinois-based financial services firm.

“I believe the U.S. economy is going to do very well over the next couple of years,” Wesbury said. “And you, because you’re in Florida, are America on steroids. You get turbo-charged.”

He believes increased activity in the private sector – including record-high rates of “real business investment,” which is adjusted for inflation – is responsible for the current upswing.

“We have had massive entrepreneurship in the last eight years, and the government didn’t do any of it,” Wesbury said. “Please stop believing they create growth in the economy because what you’re doing when you buy into that stuff is you’re undermining your own efforts.”

Wesbury’s address focused on the impact President-elect Donald Trump will have on the national economy, particularly Trump’s vow to lessen the size and impact of government.”He learned how to build a business empire, he didn’t learn how to build a bureaucracy,” Wesbury said. “He’s going to build his business sense into a government that we all know gets out of control.

“I’m not an anarchist. I believe a smaller government helps the economy grow, not zero government.”

The Economic Forecast Breakfast concluded with a question-and-answer session. Given his optimistic forecast for 2017, Wesbury was asked whether anything keeps him up at night.

“There are always four threats to prosperity: tax hikes, spending and regulation, excessive Federal Reserve tightening, and trade wars,” Wesbury said. “I am worried about Donald Trump’s comments about putting a border tax on, which would cause a trade war.

“I believe that you want to woo companies to stay here, not punish them for leaving.”

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