It took Miami-Dade five years, but spending has almost returned to its pre-recession ways.
Florida's largest county also enjoys the fastest rebound in spending, with taxable sales down just 1 percent from the prior peak set in the summer of 2007. If the current pace continues, Miami-Dade should hit a new spending record by Christmas.
That's a stark difference from the recovery underway in most areas of Florida. Statewide, sales taxes are off 12 percent from before the downturn. Broward fares even worse, with collections off 14 percent from highs seen during the final days of the housing boom.
The spending gap between Miami-Dade and elsewhere in Florida highlights how much foreign dollars have helped compensate for turmoil in the U.S. economy. Orlando, another favorite for foreign tourists, has come within 4 percent of the sales taxes local businesses collected before the recession -- and three times better than the overall state recovery.
"A lot of foreign dollars are fueling the recovery,'' said Juan del Busto, head of the Miami branch of the Federal Reserve. "It's not just hotels."
At Ornare, a high-end Brazilian furniture store in Miami's Design District, owner Claudio Faria expects 2012 to surpass the record sales set in 2011. A typical Ornare custom-designed closet sells for between $40,000 and $100,000 in the store that opened in early 2007. For every dollar he brings in from a local customer, Faria estimates another dollar comes in from a foreign customer.
"The biggest sales we've made this year were to Panama and to the Dominican Republic,'' he said. "Last month in Panama, we sold about $1 million in closets and kitchens. That was for one unit."
Miami-Dade's strong spending numbers don't tell the whole story of a rocky recovery from a historic housing crash and near-record unemployment. Housing prices remain depressed -- off about 50 percent from prior highs. While Miami-Dade's unemployment rate has been dropping for 19 months to May's 9.5 percent rate, that's still more than twice as high as it was in 2006.
The taxable-sales numbers also don't compensate for inflation, which has rendered 2012 dollars worth about 9 percent less than 2007 dollars. That means a complete recovery won't be realized even after current spending figures cross pre-bust levels.
"It's one thing to get back to the peak. We like to see those numbers,'' said Amy Baker, head of the Florida Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, which tracks the taxable-sales data. "But that doesn't mean we're as healthy as we were during the peak."
Not whole picture
Baker noted that while overall spending may be growing as the population expands, the sales figures don't reveal anything about how individual shoppers are behaving -- or whether businesses are seeing more money in the cash register.
Statewide consumer confidence has been on the way down this year, and many businesses say they're still waiting for a full recovery -- even those tied to the bustling tourism industry.
'Not there yet'
"On average, we're still about 10 or 15 percent behind that pace" hit in 2007 and 2008, said Robert Finvarb, owner of several Marriott hotels in Miami-Dade, including a 196-room Courtyard by Marriott along the Coconut Grove waterfront. "We're getting back there, but we're still not there yet."
Still, some of the gaps are dramatic when comparing Miami-Dade's spending rebound to other areas of the state.
Of the 183 industry categories the EDR office tracks each month, Miami-Dade's tourism industry has recorded the biggest rebound in the state: up 17 percent from pre-recession highs. The worst: Punta Gorda's construction industry, where spending remains 64 percent below the peak set in early 2007.
Broward's recovery mostly tracks the statewide average -- another measure of how Miami-Dade is rebounding faster than its neighbor to the north. With fewer ties to Latin American tourists, investors and new residents, Broward hasn't seen its hotel rates or hiring recover as quickly as in Miami-Dade.
Though Broward's nearly 980,000-person labor force is about 75 percent the size of Miami-Dade's, Broward lost more jobs in the recession: 83,000 as of May, compared to 50,000 for Miami-Dade.
Miami-Dade beats Broward's rebound and the recoveries of the other major metro areas in every spending category -- except construction. Tampa leads the way there, with only a 35 percent decline from the boom days. Construction spending in Miami-Dade, which suffered one of the biggest housing crashes in the country, is still down 50 percent.
Even with Miami-Dade in the lead, some of the figures remain grim. None of the large metropolitan areas have better rebounds than Miami-Dade has in terms of auto sales, business investment or durable-goods purchases.
But even after five years, Miami-Dade remains far from recovery in those categories. Auto sales are down 19 percent, business spending is down 13 percent and purchases of durable goods -- boats, home electronics, washing machines -- are also down 13 percent.
"I wouldn't say Miami is close to recovery,'' Baker said.
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