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CITY TALK: Looking back at our 2009 economy

This is the last City Talk column of the Obama years. Can you even remember 2009?

The national economy was in freefall by the time of the 2008 general election, but many Americans couldn’t imagine how much damage the financial crisis and housing bust would do.

The overconfidence was especially prevalent here in the Savannah area, which had been riding high on the housing bubble.

Of course, by the end of 2008, anyone who took a frank, honest look at the data could see that real estate collapse would have ramifications for years.

We didn’t have all the numbers at the time, but the U.S. economy fell into recession at the end of 2007. Throughout 2008, the inventory of properties for sale was climbing perilously, home prices were falling and lenders were under stress.

Despite the clarity of the data, some major players in Savannah continued to tout the resilience of our diversified economy, but the collapse would predictably hurt some of our major sectors, including tourism, private jet sales, real estate speculation, international trade and public sector spending.

By the time of the 2009 inauguration, it was clear that we were looking at a recovery that would take years, but I found that many Savannahians were still overconfident. Or just confused.

Some Obama voters thought a new president would immediately begin a new era. Some entrepreneurs hadn’t yet seen significant declines in their own businesses and thought that Obama’s inauguration brought on the crisis.

Heck, deep into 2009, city officials and many private investors still had confidence that the Savannah River Landing development was poised to move ahead.

The simple reality is that economic trends rarely reverse themselves suddenly. In particular, real estate prices tend to be “sticky” and don’t respond immediately to economic shifts.

Employment is also a lagging indicator of economic conditions. By the time Obama took office, it was inevitable that we would see job losses through much of 2009. Given the depths of those job losses, it was inevitable that it would take several years to get all those jobs back.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that there were winners and losers in the recovery. Savannah was a winner, and so was Atlanta. In general, metro areas with growing populations have strong economies today, but many small towns and rural counties have never really recovered.

Did we learn any lessons from all those experiences? Did we learn the right lessons?

In my upcoming Sunday column, I’ll take a quick look at some of the structural changes in the Savannah economy since 2009.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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