Brad Holt will tell you there’s something to be said for being situated near North Carolina’s busy Research Triangle area of Durham, Chapel Hill and the state capital of Raleigh.

WEven in today’s sluggish economy.

“It’s rolling pretty good for us,” says Holt, the service coordinator for Carrboro, N.C.-based Rice Glass. “We’re never stuck with a huge inventory, but it’s a pretty competitive market.”

The presence of three major universities – the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University – within such close proximity means there’s always project work for glass companies.

“We’re in the recovery stages, whereas other parts of North Carolina probably aren’t,” Holt says.

Rice Glass’ enviable situation appears more the exception than the norm, according to an informal™ survey of various glass companies throughout the southeast. Those in south Florida appear to have been the hardest hit by the recession thanks to the region’s heavy dependence on commercial construction.

Smaller, less-risky projects such as storefronts, curtainwalls and heavy glass showers appear to be most in demand now as new home construction remains low in a sluggish recovery. Unable to secure home loans as easily as they once did, people are now looking to instead upgrade their existing residences. That demand has been instrumental in helping the glass industry get back up on its feet.

There were overall mixed reviews on the state of the industry from others, but nearly all were in agreement about the uncertainty still ahead.

“It’s coming back,” says Michael Backer, the owner of Miami-based Action Glass Inc., “but it’s never going to be what it was. The banks got a serious reality check. I’d imagine most people down here would be happy if the new construction got back to just one-third of what it used to be. But I don’t really think it’s going to do that.”

Rough Times in South Florida, but Looking to Bounce Back

Backer’s skepticism is understandable, given the dire economic climate that befell South Florida following the crash of the real estate market a few years ago. At the height of the region’s boom in the early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see new malls, condos, apartments and other commercial developments popping up by the day, Backer says.

The real estate bust that began in 2007 was devastating to the South Florida glass industry as virtually all new construction suddenly came to a screeching halt, leaving suppliers and fabricators alike stuck with an abundance of both idle equipment and employees. It was hard to go anywhere in Miami without seeing an empty condo or housing developments serving as testament to the good days many believed would never end.

“It was really rolling,” he says, “but then the bottom fell out. Miami really got hit hard in the glass industry.”

Since then, small businesses have been the ones most impacted by the rising costs of materials, energy and health care, glass company officials agree. Fearing customer backlash, they’ve often been reluctant to pass expenses on, instead often choosing to compensate by restraining salaries and asking their employees to be more efficient. The uncertain national political climate only further fueled the doubt about the economy’s recovery.

Action Glass was one of the few south Florida glass companies that wisely stayed true to relatively small jobs of doors, windows and shower doors even during the good times, meaning that it was easier for the company to withstand the tough times to follow. Unlike many of its local contemporaries, the company wasn’t forced to sell any equipment or lay off any workers during the recession.

But Backer, who has been in business since October 1978, is heartened by the “significant increase” he’s seen as of late in new construction in the Miami area.

“It’s back,” he says, “but things are never going to be like they were.”

This is the first in a series looking at the state of the industry for different regions throughout the U.S. Look to™ for reports on the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest in the weeks to come.