Poll: Few expect economic recovery in '11

This could take a while.

Based on the newest numbers in a Review-Journal/8NewsNow survey, Nevadans don't enjoy high hopes for improvements in the state's commercial climate. Just 12 percent of respondents said they expect Nevada's economy to begin its recovery within the next year. Another third predict improvements to emerge sometime in the next two years. That leaves nearly half the state -- 48 percent -- believing it'll take up to three years or beyond for the Silver State's economy to perk back up.

"I looked at that number and said, 'Wow,'" said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, the company that conducted the poll. "People really sense they're in a hole, and they see no signs of getting out of it, at least in the short term."

The poll included responses from 625 registered Nevada voters interviewed by phone from Tuesday to Thursday. Its margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Coker said he hasn't asked this exact question outside Nevada, but if he compares these results to similar queries he's posed to voters in other states, then Nevadans come out decidedly more pessimistic than residents of other regions. That's probably because few states have sustained the economic hit Nevada's taken, he said.

The newest numbers are important because consumer sentiments often portend economic trends. A pessimistic outlook could mean consumers skimp on economic activity for the foreseeable future, and that in turn could translate into added woes for the state's economy.

"People will just tighten their belts and keep them tight," Coker said.

Consider Maria Van Den Ouden, president of Diamond Head Sign Co. in Las Vegas.

Sales for Van Den Ouden's business have fallen 60 percent from their peak in 2006 and 2007. Van Den Ouden, who noted that she thinks the state is experiencing a depression rather than a recession, said she expects it to take at least two years "to feel comfortable again."

That's because banks aren't lending money, so the mom and pop operators who make up 70 percent of Diamond Head's business can't obtain financing to open the smoke shops, nail salons and other new companies that would generate demand for fresh signs.

Diamond Head, which has dropped from 24 employees to eight staffers, has survived thanks to intensive client-relations efforts and by moving into recession-related niches such as sign removals and sign refurbishing at renovated commercial parks. But as Van Den Ouden waits for the economy to recover, she's personally avoiding spending on big-ticket items and is focused on salting away a few extra dollars each month. In her business, Van Den Ouden has depleted Diamond Head's inventories and doesn't plan to build them back up anytime soon.

"We're restricting spending and watching where every penny goes," she said.

Even as Nevadans attempt to forecast recovery, one local observer said pinpointing an economic renaissance isn't simple.

It's tempting to predict a time line for overall revival, but some parts of the economy will come back far faster than others, said Brian Gordon, a principal in local business advisory firm Applied Analysis. The state's tourism sector already shows signs of life, with visitor volumes ticking upward for most of 2010 and hotel-room rates stabilizing after steep falls in 2009, Gordon noted. The construction sector, on the other hand, could languish for several more years, given the excess commercial and residential real estate on the market today.

It's the kind of difference local interior designer Marc Abelman sees on his job.

While Abelman said he thinks the overall economy could take two years to post broad indicators of recovery, his luxury home-focused Inside Style design firm has posted solid growth in 2010. Business at Inside Style depends more on how the stock market is doing, as well as seasonal variations. Sales started strong at the beginning of the year, but when financial markets tanked in the summer and potential clients went on vacation, new orders slowed.

With the start of the school year, sales are "popping" again, Abelman said. Inside Style has lost roughly 30 percent of its sales base since 2008, but the recent pickup has proven noticeable enough that the company could regain its lost revenue within 18 months, Abelman said.

Times remain lean enough that Abelman plans to keep his personal and professional spending under control in the near term. It wasn't unusual for Inside Style to spend $1,000 on a dinner for clients in the heady days of 2006. The firm doesn't drop those kinds of dollars on entertaining anymore, but Abelman said he refuses to cut off all spending.

"Putting your money under a mattress doesn't help anyone," he said. "You can't live in a cave forever, where you huddle around and you don't go out to eat or buy anything. Who wants to live like that?"

Gordon said he expects such sentiments to become more common in coming months as Nevadans reach "recession fatigue" and adjust to the idea that today's economy represents a "new normal." Those changing attitudes could eventually goose recovery.

"I think many consumers have been hunkered down for so long that they've just decided it's time to return to some level of normalcy in their lives," Gordon said. "That may include dining out more often than they did in the past year, or it may entail purchasing clothing, which they've held off on for the past 12 to 14 months. They may continue to operate cautiously, but they're settling into the new market realities. Most Southern Nevadans have readjusted how they do business and how they act in their daily lives."

Based on those poll numbers, Coker said he's not sure Nevadans are confident enough to leave their foxholes just yet.

"It's probably too early for people to accept the fact that this is the status quo," he said. "People do think it will eventually get better, but they differ over how long it will take, and they seem to think there'll be a lot of bumps in the road ahead. Fewer dollars coming in will mean fewer jobs, and fewer jobs will ultimately drive people away."

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.