Battleground Highways — The I-4 Corridor

We have blogged about the most important strip of road in Florida — the I-4 Corridor — previously as part of larger posts.  But the Daily Herald took a look specifically at this road and its role in determining the outcome of Florida’s 29 electoral votes:

The once-booming Florida economy that was battered by the recession and is now recovering at a frustratingly slow pace. Once a symbol of explosive Sunbelt development, where construction cranes seemed as common as palm trees, this haven for retirees, tourists and Northern transplants is trying to recapture its glow. But first the state has to bounce back from a housing bust and a steep plunge in population growth. Florida’s economy is center stage in President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s high-stakes campaign for the rich trove of 29 electoral votes. One of the biggest prizes still up for grabs, this state, a hard-fought White House battleground in 2000, could be just as pivotal this year. And no turf may be more important than the I-4 corridor, the heart of swing voter country, home to foreclosures and fresh starts, pain and prosperity, hope, anxiety and a frustration with politics — America in microcosm.

Stark contrasts

If the glittery, crowded empire of Mickey Mouse offers a sunny view of Florida’s recovery, a half-hour away on I-4, a cavernous warehouse provides a stark contrast. Walking past rows of floor-to-ceiling mayonnaise jars, ketchup bottles, soup cans, baby carriages, blankets and tons of other supplies, Dave Krepcho, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, doesn’t mince words: “We have a disaster going on, but it’s an economic disaster,” he says. “Month in and month out, I can’t believe the numbers.”

Food bank numbers tell a difficult tale

In the past four years, food distribution to 500 pantries, shelters, and other relief agencies in the six-county area has jumped about 60 percent. In the last year alone, that amounted to 36 million pounds of food. In a four-year period concluding at the end of 2009, the number of people served by the food bank skyrocketed from nearly 300,000 to 732,000 — and Krepcho says he hasn’t seen any decline in need since then. He estimates about 30 percent of those seeking help are first-timers. They’re blue-collar and white-collar, many middle class, even some upper middle class. They include college-educated couples and professionals. Krepcho knows their stories: The engineer who lost his job, his wife found work as a billing clerk, but they still couldn’t avoid foreclosure; the teacher who migrated to Florida for a job, only to see it disappear a year later in budget cuts.

Voter cynicism remains high

Four years ago, Barack Obama’s message of hope propelled him to the White House. Now he and Romney face the daunting challenge of selling economic remedies to voters wary of election-year promises. Both candidates have been frequent visitors to Florida and constant TV presences, pouring in tens of millions of dollars into commercials in this incredibly diverse state.

Diverse Florida

Florida has several sprawling cities as well as vast rural areas. It reflects Southern heritage in the north, while transplanted Northeasterners and Midwesterners flock to the south. There are retirees, immigrants from Latin America, Haiti and beyond, a large Jewish population and a lot of veterans. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “Take any group out of the equation and you can’t complete the picture that yields the presidency.” That demography makes for tight races, most famously former President George W. Bush’s eyelash-thin margin in 2000, culminating in a Supreme Court showdown. Obama edged McCain by almost 3 points in 2008.

[Media Bias alert: The following lines about medicare and the economy are decidedly misrepresenting Romney’s position and would not likely be read any differently had they been written by the Obama campaign. You’ve been warned.]

One economic issue already surfacing here is the plan by Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential pick, to revamp Medicare with a voucherlike system that some independent budget analysts say would likely mean higher costs for seniors. Obama’s campaign recently released an online video featuring worried Florida seniors; Romney’s campaign countered by saying the president cut $700 billion in Medicare to pay for his health care program. But the plans Ryan produced in Congress in the last two years retain those cuts and call for repealing Obama’s program. Romney’s staff says he wants to restore the $700 billion. Obama’s health care plan actually improves some Medicare benefits. It’s begun closing the coverage gap in the prescription drug program, known as the doughnut hole. At times, Republicans have offered mixed messages about Florida’s economy. While Romney has criticized the state’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate (in June) and foreclosures, Gov. Rick Scott has boasted of a turnaround.

Signs of improvement

Tourism and health care are driving the recovery, though the state has recovered only about 20 percent of nearly 925,000 jobs lost during the downturn, says Chris Lafakis, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.  The decline in construction jobs, long an economic mainstay here, hasn’t bottomed out. And some jobs — including those in the canceled U.S. space shuttle program closed last year — are gone for good. But Lafakis says about 75 percent of tourist-related jobs are back. Parking lots are crowded at Busch Gardens, Disney World, Universal Studios (home to a Harry Potter world) and other attractions along this road stretching from Tampa on the Gulf — site of this month’s Republican National Convention — to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic side.

Still a long way to go

There are more than 371,000 open foreclosure files and more than half a million Florida mortgages are delinquent for 90 days or more, says Jack McCabe, an independent housing analyst. “You can make a case that we’re just a third or halfway through the foreclosure crisis,” he says. McCabe says home prices are still down 35 percent to 55 percent across Florida. Growing numbers of foreign investors from places including Latin America and western Europe are gobbling up property. And though unemployment is below the double-digit highs posted in 2010, a recent state report found nearly 70 percent of the decline from last December to this past May was because people had dropped out of the job market. The jobless rate won’t fall below 8 percent until the last quarter of 2014, according to a July report by Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness.

Uncharted territory

“Florida always has been one of the first states out of the economic downturns,” says MacManus, the USF political scientist. “We’re not only lagging behind but we’re among the slower states to recover. It’s a situation Floridians just find unacceptable. We’ve always been ahead of the curve, not behind.” In the past, Florida depended on a “one, two punch” to escape recession — population growth and construction. “This time we didn’t get either to claw our way out of this particular hole,” Snaith says. During the boom of 2004-05, for example, net migration — those moving in minus those leaving — was 352,000. By 2008-09, it was just 15,000, according to the University of Florida bureau of economic and business research. As for housing, Snaith says: “We have more rooftops than people to put under them.” Snaith says population growth is gradually recovering and should pick up, but for now, the economy seems frozen. “I think the presidential election is sort of keeping people standing still,” Snaith says. “We’re at the fork in the road and each candidate represents a path. Unless business knows what road we’re on, it’s just a waiting game.”

A turnaround for some — new entrepreneurs along I-4.

Walt Mazie and his wife, Nicole, left solid jobs and on July 4, 2010, opened a small place in Flagler Beach, on Florida’s northeast Atlantic Coast, selling snowballs, iced treats. That blossomed into the Big Easy Cafe, which serves Cajun food in the tradition of New Orleans, Nicole’s hometown. About six months ago, there was a turnaround. Mazie says business has increased about 65 percent over last year, thanks to positive publicity and an improved economy. Competition is arriving with two restaurants going up within a block but Mazie sees it as a sign of a broader recovery. “I really do think things are going in the right direction,” he says.

About 70 miles away in Orlando for Leigh Ann Horton and her husband, Vince, owners of AIT Life Safety, a commercial fire alarms, sprinkler and safety systems company they purchased nearly three years ago. Business has increased 20 percent in the last year and they’ve added workers and are so busy they’ve passed up placing bids on some projects.

Political lines drawn

With 2½ months before the election, Michael Dobbins is a rare breed — an undecided voter. “Romney’s only interested in big business,” Dobbins says. “Obama wants the government in your business. It’s going to make it difficult to vote at all.” But up and down I-4, the political lines are being defined. There’s Leigh Ann Horton, president of her security firm. “I think we need a change,” she says. “I’m super-hopeful things will change. It’s not that we won’t recover, but I think if the Republicans are elected, it will come faster … I don’t think the current administration has done a bunch for small businesses.”


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