Dueling forecasts

The end of one year naturally prompts a look ahead to the next year. Unfortunately for some business owners and managers who’ve struggled through a slow economic recovery in the Grand Valley, it’s something like a welcome gasp of relief sucked through teeth clinched tight in terror. OK, we survived that. Now what?

As usual, the forecast depends in large part upon who’s doing the forecasting.

An annual economic forecast prepared at the University of Colorado offers a mostly upbeat prediction of increased hiring in Mesa County that will pull down unemployment rates even as it boosts business conditions. The 2014 Colorado Business Economic Outlook projects growth in a number of industry sectors, among them aviation, construction and health care.

At the same time, though, the latest results of a twice-yearly survey conducted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce reflect a more subdued outlook. While more business owners and managers responding to the survey expect staffing and sales to increase than decrease over the next six months, they consider the local economy weak and unlikely to fully recover until late 2014 or even 2015. Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, aptly summarizes the survey results in two words: holding pattern.

Economic indicators and other trends add to the conflict.

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County, one of the most important indicators or all, fell a half point in October to 7 percent, its lowest reading in nearly five years. The question, of course, is whether the downward trend in joblessness will continue and to what extent. There’s more good news in the steady recover of the real estate market in Mesa County during 2013, along with a sharp decline in property foreclosure activity.

More troubling is a reversal of fortune in the energy sector that’s contributed in large part to the economic divide between the Front Range and Western Slope. While comparatively high oil prices encourage exploration and production along the Front Range, low natural gas prices hamper development on the West Slope. Consider as ample evidence an announcement by Encana it’s suspending drilling operations in the Piceance Basin in 2014.

In the end, it’s encouraging the Grand Valley remains a great place to live and conduct business. Retail outlets, health care facilities and a growing university not only serve residents, but attract business from throughout the region. That’s a rock solid foundation upon which to build. Nonetheless, the forecast for 2014 isn’t nearly as encouraging or certain as business owners and managers would prefer.