Published: Jan 22, 2011 12:26 AM EST
Updated: Jan 21, 2011 6:05 PM EST

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Many of Southwest Florida's small, locally owned businesses say they are starting to see improvement in the economy.


Cape Coral's CRS Technology Consultants, a small I-T firm with fewer than 20 employees, has added two new workers in the last month. Owner Carol Conway says a recent increase in workload is due, in part, to local clients who are seeing increased demands.


 "In general, the outlook - as they say - is cautiously optimistic," Conway told WINK News. "There is a sense that things are improving. And we're finding that clients right now are busier than they've been in a long time."


 One of those clients is Spiro & Associations marketing in Ft. Myers.


 "It's great to see the market coming back again," owner Chris Spiro said this week.


 Spiro and Conway both noticed the first upward trends in business in the last half of 2010. Growth has been slow, but consistent, Spiro says. He calls that encouraging.


 "I'm heavily involved in the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce," Spiro said. "Almost 95 percent of its members employ five workers are less. So when you see those people getting busy, it's an indication that we're busy all over."


 Spiro says he's seeing more advertising dollars in recent months. The revenue helps offset his own business expenses, like the I-T support provided by Conway's computer company. Both owners say as the economy improves for their businesses, they find it's helping others.


 According to state statistics, there are more than 13,000 jobs available in Southwest Florida as of January. And while new unemployment numbers out today show a decline in Lee County's jobless rate, the area still remains above the national average. Some analysts say it could be as late as 2019 before Lee County's unemployment rate returns to the low percentage seen before the recession.


For those reasons and more, businesses -- both small and large -- say they are still cautious. Spiro says the true test of his company's recent growth will be whether it is sustained through the summer. Conway says if her company's growth continues, she may be able to add another two or three people to her staff over the course of the year. Both are staying optimistic.


 "I feel since we've made it through this, most people can now see the light at the end of the tunnel and know it's not a train," Conway said. "There's real hope for our community."