NAPLES — It was a year of ups and downs in business.
High unemployment continued to rock the region in 2011. More local companies failed — including the high-end furniture retailer Robb & Stucky. Collier County's Economic Development Council folded.
But there were signs of a slow recovery this year. Retail sales rose. Foreclosures slowed, new-home building resumed and commercial projects advanced, including a new 41-acre shopping center planned for Golden Gate Estates.
Arthrex, a Naples-based medical manufacturer, announced plans to expand in Lee and Collier counties this year.
"Things are getting better. It's just very, very slow," said Gary Jackson, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero.
Here's a closer look at a few of the top local business stories in 2011:
Out of Work
In Southwest Florida and across the state, many workers remained jobless, unable to find work in a sputtering economy. Collier started the year with an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent in January. Lee's was even higher — at 12.7 percent, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Unemployment rates went up and down like a seesaw monthly in the two counties until later in the year, when they dropped a few months in a row.
Last month, Collier's jobless rate fell to 10 percent, while Lee's declined to 10.5 percent. Statewide, the unemployment rate stood at 10 percent in November, with 905,000 Floridians out of work.
In Lee and Collier counties, there still are nearly 43,000 workers without a job.
Collier County said goodbye to Jackson Laboratory for good in 2011.
The county tried to woo the Maine-based scientific research lab, but Collier County commissioners ultimately rejected the project. So Jackson Labs went shopping. After Sarasota failed to lure the business, the Connecticut Legislature approved $291 million in bond funding to build a new Jackson Laboratory center for personalized medicine in the state.
Collier Commissioners Jim Coletta and Fred Coyle wished both Jackson and Connecticut the best.
"Obviously, the people in Connecticut have a better vision of the future than many of the people in Collier County," said Coyle, who supported bringing Jackson Labs to Collier.
Jerry Williams, once a highly successful bank executive in Naples, was indicted by a grand jury on bank fraud charges in March. Williams, the former CEO of Orion Bank in Naples, signed a plea deal this past week on Wednesday.
The deal still must be reviewed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas Frazier, who will hold a hearing and recommend to a federal judge whether it should be approved or rejected. The judge would then hold a hearing.
In a 13-count indictment, he was accused of orchestrating a complex scheme designed to trick state and federal regulators into believing his failing bank was in better financial shape than it was as its losses mounted.
Three other men, who pleaded guilty for their involvement in the scheme months ago, already have been sentenced and cooperated with prosecutors in the state's case against Williams.
If a judge accepts the plea agreement, a sentencing hearing will follow within 90 days.
The real estate market continued its slow recovery, as new home building picked up and new residential projects moved ahead.
Bonita Springs-based WCI Communities opened its sales center at Manchester Square in North Naples, a project that had been sitting idle off Livingston Road.
G.L. Homes launched Riverstone at Naples and is investing millions in the new 850-home community off Immokalee Road. Stock Development introduced Lacoya, its final neighborhood in Lely Resort off U.S. 41 East.
Fiddler's Creek emerged from bankruptcy and other big housing developments changed hands and are being recapitalized including Treviso Bay in East Naples, now owned by Lennar.
Several unfinished housing projects were sold at foreclosure auctions this year, including Summit Place and Bristol Pines, once owned by Waterways Joint Venture IV LLC, which ran into financial trouble and then defaulted on more than $30 million in loans.
Naples housing expert Ross McIntosh said the real estate activity seen this year hasn't happened since 2007.
"It does not represent a tsunami by any stretch of the imagination, but it represents a sea change," he said.
Naples-based Arthrex, a medical device manufacturer, expects to add hundreds of new jobs in the next three to five years with an expansion in Lee and Collier counties.
The company plans to build a 160,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on 21 acres on Oil Well Road in the town of Ave Maria. Barron Collier Cos. is donating the land to Arthrex.
The company also purchased the 238,000-square-foot Robb & Stucky corporate headquarters and distribution center for $12.5 million, which will become a centralized warehouse for the packaging and distribution of Arthrex's products to national and global customers. The warehouse will be convenient for shipping through Southwest Florida International Airport.
"Consolidation of our packaging and distribution services will provide new space in our existing Collier County manufacturing facilities for expanding high-tech design and production capacity for new surgical device innovations," Reinhold Schmieding, Arthrex president and founder, said in announcing the company's plans for expansion a few months ago.
The project is a $35-million investment and the economic impact to the state and national economies will exceed $1 billion a year by 2016.
Looking ahead to the new year, Mike Reagen, president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, said there is still a great deal of uncertainty, economically and politically in Southwest Florida.
"We are feeling a little bit better than we felt perhaps a year or so ago," he said. "I think we are heading in the right direction."