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South Florida: The State Of Business

I've returned from a one-week swing through southern Florida, mainly Miami and the Florida Keys, visiting family and taking stock of the business community.

I spoke with employees in over two dozen businesses, mostly waitresses, bartenders, small business owners, and hotel employees, so much of my observations relate to the state of the tourism industry in south Florida.

Two general observations:

1) When I asked the question, "How is business compared to January and February of last year?" the range of responses was flat to down 30 percent.

2) The more popular, more famous places seem to have been hurt less than the more marginal places; in particular, more modestly priced places that had a good base of local support seemed to be holding up well.

Little Havana, Miami: at the famed Versailles restaurant, the center of the Cuban community for decades, Sunday dinner was packed with Cuban families in their Sunday best.

Real estate in south Miami: I met with a real estate agent in south Miami to discuss selling my mother-in-law's condo. Inventories of homes for sale were much lower than last year, partly because many had taken their properties off the market. There have been buyers emerging recently but they are low-balling already lowered bids. Prices were 30 percent or more off the peak prices of 2004-2005; 40 percent of sales were foreclosures. The agent said her firm was not expecting a turnaround in prices until 2011.

Islamorada, Florida Keys: at the Holiday Isles resort, long a vacation hot spot for sport fishing, drinking, and bikini contests, the bartender at the main bar said that business was down 30 percent. But at Mile Marker 88, considered one of the best restaurants in the Keys, there were no empty tables for dinner. The maitre d' said business was strong.

Marathon, Florida Keys: business was good at moderately-priced restaurants with a strong local following, like Herbie's, Porky's, and the Stuffed Pig but down notably at the Seven Mile Grill. There were few customers for the many small businesses—bookstores, appliance shops—along Route 1 at the far western part of town; several locals noted that the number of sport fishing rentals were down notably from the prior year.

Key West: at the famous Green Parrot bar, the usual crowd of early morning regulars were not present; a smattering of tourists were there by noon. At the Half Shell Raw Bar at the Marina, the center of the tourist crawl, there was no problem getting a table for lunch. On Duvall Street, the center of town, there was a steady stream of tourists but it was not crowded.

Palm Beach: at Renato's restaurant on Worth Avenue, the ladies who lunch were much less in evidence; patrons had no problem getting an outdoor table at noon. But at Chez Jean Pierre, long a local favorite, dinner business was brisk. Traffic on Worth Avenue was light.

South Beach, Miami: at the Setai, the beautiful lobby was deserted; poolside activity was modest, the poolside bar and restaurant were busy, but the bartender described business as only "so-so."

On Ocean Boulevard in South Beach, the News Cafe--the emotional center of South Beach--was not full; traffic on the street was lighter than usual for February.

Bottom line: there are pockets of strength, particularly for businesses with strong local support. Business was weakest in areas most dependent on tourists

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