The state of the economy was foremost on the minds of dealers and vendors from Alabama, Florida, and Georgia who gathered last week for the first-ever winter education conference held jointly by the Construction Suppliers Association (CSA), the Florida Building Material Association (FBMA), and the Structural Building Components Association.

"Welcome to the recession of 2008," said Roger Tutterow, an economics professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., noting that there might be several more quarters to go in the economic downturn. While Tutterow suggested the housing market might already have hit bottom, he also predicted commercial sales might see a crash by this summer or fall.

Held Jan. 21-23 in St. Augustine, Fla., the event drew more than 60 attendees including 31 dealers: nine from Georgia/Alabama, representing the CSA, and 22 from Florida.

"When everyone is struggling, it is difficult to look to the future," said Bill Tucker, president of the FBMA. "Besides a greater understanding of where the economy is and how it got here, I believe our attendees received encouraging news: we are on the backside of the recession and the Federal Reserve is focusing on loosening credit."

At Thomas Lumber Co. in Orlando, strong commercial and light commercial sales to Orlando's theme parks, including Disney, Sea World and Universal Studios helped insulate it somewhat from the crash in residential homebuilding. But even Thomas has watched its sales shrink and cut its payroll shrink as a result. According to company president Deanna Jenkins, the Orlando-based dealer went from 48 employees two years ago to 31 today.

"We had to look at our payroll month by month and we've had to adjust again and again," Jenkins said. "It looks like we are going to have to watch our pennies for another year."

"This is clearly a trying time for our members," said Jim Moody, CSA president. "We felt that this meeting provided some very good information from primary sources about what is really happening with our economy without the negative spin that seems to pervade our popular media.

"That's not to say that anyone left the meeting with a warm, fuzzy feeling about 2009," Moody added. "Most people I've spoken to feel like if they can stay afloat in 2009 that 2010 will bring better days."

Another joint winter education conference is already in the works for 2010 and is likely to take place in northern Florida, Tucker says. Among the FBMA's upcoming events is the Gulf Atlantic Building Products Expo scheduled for August 19-21 in Orlando.