JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Another day, another grand opening on the First Coast.
Health care company Ascension St. Vincent’s unveiled the second of ten planned integrated care facilities along the First Coast on Friday, the newest on County Road 210 in St. Johns County.
“We see the First Coast as just a dynamic growing community,” said CEO Thomas VanOsdol after the ribbon cutting. "And we want to make sure that we’re a part of that.”
It’s a sentiment heard and manifested almost constantly in the region as new homes and businesses pop up on a seemingly overnight basis. According to our news partners, the Florida Times-Union, Duval County grew 1.6 percent last year. St. Johns County added 24 percent in the last seven years.
“Continued strength in population growth will feed in to the regional economy,” said nationally renowned economist Dr. Sean Snaith while visiting Jacksonville this week. “It’s physically a beautiful community and I think that it offers a lot in terms of quality of life. Cost of living is not as high as it is in south Florida … I think growth here in Jacksonville will be faster than the state as a whole.”
But Snaith’s statement seemed as much one of logic as flat-out prediction. He emphasized while presenting at Epping Forest Yacht Club that many factors can boost – or burst – an economic bubble.
“I think the Port continues to be a very important driver,” he said, naming just one element.
Asked whether the St. Johns River should be dredged to allow for larger ships, Snaith gave a roundabout ‘yes.'
“This is always a challenge both in terms of funding and getting permitting to do these dredging projects,” he acknowledged. "But certainly the widening of the Panama Canal and the ability to handle these Panamax vessels is going to be important.
Snaith cautioned about the potential for missing out on a vital growth driver.
“And there are other regions, not just here in Florida but up and down the East Coast, that are vying for a piece of this action that’s going to come from this shipping opportunity," he said.
Of course, there are many sectors and services that benefit from – and/or are crucial to sustaining – economic expansion, including law enforcement, education, and infrastructure including transportation.
“Construction and expanding traffic lanes is a sure sign of something positive,” Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Odette Struys pointed out while talking roadside with First Coast News on Friday. “It’s growth."
Struys said the FDOT is constantly forecasting at least five years out, and much longer for certain hotspots.
“There’s about 250,000 vehicles that use [the Interstate 10 and Interstate 95] interchange every single day... In 2040 that will rise drastically to 290,000 vehicles,” Struys predicted.
“So this is really forward thinking. It’s an agency that really has to accommodate growth and look at it today,” Struys continued, saying currently some 75 million vehicles use roads in FDOT’s District 2, which encompasses 18 counties in northeast Florida.
For his part, Dr. Snaith didn’t appear primarily concerned about the region becoming a victim of its own popularity by failing to keep up with the growth. He believes the First Coast’s fate will pivot most and soonest on fiscal policy in Washington, most specifically whether President Trump will be successful implementing his tax reform blueprint.
“I think the incentive is great to get something significant done before the mid-term election, so I think tax reform will happen,” Snaith forecast, acknowledging that the President’s plan might be only partially accepted. “But I think it’s a critical piece in continuing this economic expansion,” Snaith said.
Snaith said he’ll be focusing on one industry especially in the near future.
“The financial sector is one to keep an eye on over the next several years,” he said, pointing to the industry’s heavy presence in Greater Jacksonville.
He also said that because of Obama-era regulations that followed the mortgage meltdown and housing bubble collapse, financials have lagged many other sectors during the economic expansion that began nationally in 2009. President Trump is trying to scale back those rules.
“I think that’s going to open up growth in that sector, which has not had very robust growth for much of this recovery but yet is a very important part of Jacksonville’s economy," he said.
Ultimately, despite his overall optimism, Snaith tempered his prediction, noting that the current unprecedented bull market on Wall Street can’t last forever, especially if the Trump White House is thwarted in its regulation reduction.
“If that doesn’t happen for some reason, all this confidence, all this surge in the stock market, all that stuff can start to unwind,” he admonished. "And instead of faster growth we could be talking about slipping in to another recession.”