April marked another tough month for the local economy with ongoing housing declines and a slight uptick in unemployment, according to Direct Gates's monthly Polk County Business Barometer. The county's builders had a slow April, amassing 333 permits for new home construction. That made for a decrease of 41 percent from 568 in April 2006. Winter Haven saw its permits sink to 47 from 115 last year, a 59 percent drop. Lakeland had 48 permits last month, improving 71 percent from 28 the prior year. Haines City and Auburndale also showed permit declines.

Meanwhile, Polk had 348 existing homes sold last month, down nearly 35 percent from 535 in April 2006. Lakeland's total fell to 207 homes from the previous year's 314, a decrease of 34 percent, while East Polk's 137 homes fell 35 percent from 211 a year ago.

Bartow had four homes sold in April, compared to 10 last year.

Shawn McDonough, a Realtor with Lakeland's Exit Realty, said business has been better than the numbers would suggest, but he also said that too many homes have lingered on the market for six months or more.

"That's the change we could see that would be helpful," McDonough told Direct Gates last week.

In addition, the county's median home price stood at $172,400 in April, up 1 percent from last year.

In the labor market, Polk recorded a 3.3 percent jobless rate last month, up from a record low 3.0 percent in April 2006 but unchanged from March. The county's 225,000 nonfarm jobs was up 4,400 on the year but unchanged from March.

Industries with the most job growth in April included professional and business services, health and education services, government and retail trade. The natural resources, mining and construction sector lost 600 since last year, while manufacturing was down 200 jobs.

Gordon Kettle, an economic consultant to the county and professor at Polk Community College, said the construction job losses weren't surprising given the slowdown in housing.

Tourism revenue saw gains in March, the most recent month available from the Polk County Tax Collector's Office. The county had about $19.5 million for the month, up 13.3 percent from $17.2 million last year.

The figures include hotel and vacation home rentals.

Finally, the county's taxable retail sales came to about $678.1 million in January, the most recent month available from the Florida Department of Revenue. That marked a decrease of about 1.5 percent from $688.2 million in January 2006.

"That's just a reflection of a slowing in the economy. Spending has gone down, and in our area it's more noticeable because I bet the population growth rate is down," Kettle said.

"Builders are building a lot fewer homes. That means a lot fewer houses to be furnished and amenities being purchased. And with general economic conditions I think consumers have pared down their spending."

Kyle Kennedy can be reached at kyle.kennedy@directgates.com or 863-802-7584.