Storm Clouds Gathering On The Horizon

This week’s Courier Herald column.

I was in one of my favorite local restaurants in Brunswick Georgia last week, an area I’ve been more than not for the past year and a half.  Enough time that on some documents I’ve now started to call Glynn County “home”.

The place is a favorite of mine for their daily “meat and two” lunch specials.  It’s the favorite of many, as it’s often hard to get a seat during peak hours.  On that day, it was different.  Tables and bar stools were readily available just past noon.

My favorite server was behind the bar.  She’s the kind of person that can take a phone order while refilling the drinks of some and cashing out others, smiling and moving with purpose and hustle the entire time.  She remembers her regulars and what they order.  She’s a hard working professional.

On this day, however, she was standing still.  I remarked (having been gone for almost two weeks) how unusual it was to see her getting a break.   Then I noticed she wasn’t smiling as she replied “there’s been too many days like this lately.  I need it to be busy.”

When those from other parts of Georgia think of Glynn County, they generally think of the islands.  Jekyll is a state owned authority with some full time residents.  St Simons is decidedly upper middle class to wealthy residents, combined with a lot of second homes and a growing number of vacation rental properties.  Sea Island has a gate to ensure it is understood that it is a socio-economic class all unto itself.

Causeways and tax brackets separate the islands from Brunswick.  It’s a town of hard working folks, with a healthy mix of white collar, blue collar, and no collar jobs.  Truthfully, it’s not unlike many rural Georgia towns.  It just has better water views.

It’s not unusual to see restaurants slow down a bit on the island as summer turns to fall.  This place is a destination for locals.  When folks get nervous and see economic storm clouds on the horizon, restaurant dining is one of the first discretionary items that can be cut back, if not eliminated, to save the household budget.  Servers – who hustle to earn their living from the tips of these diners – are a leading indicator of economic conditions.  They “need to be busy”.

A week later I was out on the island, dropping in for a bite and beverage with one of my favorite bartenders.  He, also a professional, had my usual cold beverage waiting for me when I reached my seat.  His place was also a bit less crowded than usual, but for different reasons.  He, too, was not smiling, and it was more painfully evident than with my server a week before.

His restaurant would be closing for three days, as actual storm clouds were on the horizon.  Hurricane Ian had yet to hit South Florida, but the forecast track had it hitting the Georgia coast as a tropical storm, with rainfall adding the potential for catastrophic flooding. 

His place is only open 5 nights per week, so 60% of a week’s income was guaranteed to be lost.  Add in the tourists not likely to visit this weekend and those who didn’t dine in earlier in the week as they made preparations to leave or bunker down, and he was guaranteed economic damages even if the storm didn’t add property damage to his personal mix.

As I file this column, things look horrible for residents of southwest Florida and there are likely billions in property damage and losses of irreplaceable life.  Things are looking better for Georgia residents as the forecast track as of this writing has the storm moving away from the state, now making aim at the Charleston area.  Hopefully the storm will have diminished by the time you have read this.

When I write about rainy day funds, I’m usually talking about the State of Georgia.  The state currently holds about $5 Billion in reserve for a “rainy day”.  That sounds like a lot, but it’s less than two month’s spending. 

Current statistics show Americans still have significantly higher personal savings than they did a decade ago, after a couple of years of post-Covid stimulated economic activity.  Those statistics differ widely depending on which side of the economic causeway you live on.  For those who don’t own homes that have gone up in value but have seen rents and costs of food and gasoline go up, they’re already feeling economic pain.

As economic storm clouds build on the horizon, pay close attention to those who work in areas that depend on discretionary income.  They are a lot easier to digest and understand as a “leading economic indicator” than the usual litany of economic statistics I’ve been writing about here.

They’re the ones willing and wanting to work. We want them to be smiling.  We need them to be busy. 

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