Economists See Rebound, Workers Waiting

Economists stand by the numbers, but say the degree of improvement has been so incremental and it is still so early in the process that the benefits have yet to filter down.

"We're seeing all the signs. We just haven't yet crossed that critical threshold at which point we can declare victory," Banc One's Chan says.

When Main Street does finally begin to feel the turnaround, some of the first to notice will probably be the thousands of people who started their own businesses after losing jobs. While most of the ventures remain embryonic, some are starting to gain traction.

Louise Van Osten, a former executive at a consulting firm, is in that camp. Van Osten, of Ramsey, N.J., lost her job in a layoff in mid-2001, and got minimal response to the resumés she sent out. So she poured the past two years into opening and running Foot Solutions, a franchised shoe store a few minutes from her home.

The business has grown gradually. Van Osten hired three employees, the last a year ago, and sales this year grew 20 percent. But with a first-hand opportunity to observe consumers, Van Osten is circumspect about what comes next for her business and the economy.

"I don't see things slipping back again, but I don't expect it to be a big push," says Van Osten, noting that very few of her customers buy more than one pair of shoes at a time. "I think it's going to be gradual … People are going to be conservative for a while." That uncertainty also prevails for many manufacturers. Rich Gentes, a seasoned business owner in Portland, for example, says it could be a year before he hires again even if the economy continues to improve.

By this past July, Gentes had cut the staff at Maxline Custom Cases Inc. from 16 workers to five and borrowed heavily just to keep the doors open.

Then, customers he hadn't heard from in two years began calling the shipping case maker. A month later, the uptick turned into a surge of orders that had Maxline's handful of remaining employees working nights and weekends. But after all his business has weathered — including a slowdown again in November — Gentes is unconvinced the economic rebound has taken hold. "I'm a lot more optimistic than I was, but I still don't know if this is the real thing," he says.

At least Gentes has hard figures on which to base his outlook. For people like Cronin, the aspiring real estate saleswoman, figuring out the future comes down to a hunch. At times she wonders who will buy the homes she's selling unless more companies starts hiring. But that's depressing, so Cronin tries to focus on the positive.

It helps, Cronin says, to drive out to Katy Trails, the hint of a subdivision she's banking on, and imagine how it will look once home buyers arrive — if she can just hold on that long.

"I can see the houses and the neighbors and the swing sets and the whole bit," she says. "I surely want to be there to be a part of it."

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