Halfway through the year, signals still mixed

There’s seldom a time when all the indicators click into place like tumblers and reveal, if only for a moment, what’s really going on in the economy. More often, another metaphor applies: The signals remain mixed.

That’s the situation in the Grand Valley halfway through 2019.

The cover story in this very issue of the Business Times offers a mid-year review of the local economy and business conditions as assessed by local officials and those involved in various industries. Separate stories report the latest numbers for the labor and real estate markets. Yet another story reports the latest results of a quarterly survey of Colorado business leaders. Still more stories report on national indexes and economic indicators.

That’s a lot to read and consider. So here are some of the highlights:

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate fell to 2.9 percent in Mesa County in May. That matches the rate for May 2018 as the lowest level since 2007. Meanwhile, the labor force has grown to 77,827, a 2.6 percent gain over the past year. The combination of lower jobless rates and a growing labor force constitutes a key indicator of improving labor conditions.

Low housing inventories continue to slow real estate transactions. For the first half of the year, 2,562 transactions worth a combined $756 million were reported in Mesa County. Compared to the first half of 2018, transactions fell 10.5 percent. Dollar volume increased 2.6 percent, though, on higher residential prices as well as more large commercial deals. By the way, the active number of residential real estate listings in the county at the end of June was down 10.8 percent from the same time last year. New residential construction has yet to keep pace, and single-family building permits for the first half of 2019 were down 15 percent from the first half of 2018.

The Leeds Business Confidence Index declined to 50.5 heading into the third quarter, a reflection of more uncertainty and less optimism among the Colorado business leaders who responded to the survey upon which the index was based. The index still reflects more positive than negative responses, but readings fell for all six of the metrics the index tracks.

Those are some of the numbers halfway through 2019. What’s the sentiment among Grand Valley business owners?

As director of business retention and expansion at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, C.J. Rhyne regularly meets with business owners and enjoys a unique perspective of the collective mind of the local business community. Rhyne describes the sentiment he hears as cautious optimism.

There’s concern about the potential effects of state legislation changing the way natural gas and oil development is regulated in Colorado. Finding qualified workers in a tight labor market remains a worry as well. So do comparatively low annual average wages in Mesa County.

But there’s also confidence in the economy. Moreover, the Grand Valley has become increasingly attractive to people who want to escape the traffic congestion and higher housing prices of the Front Range and enjoy the outdoor recreation and Colorado lifestyle this area offers. Some of those transplants bring along existing businesses or launch new ones.

Perhaps the most promising signal of all is the ongoing willingness of business owners and investors to spend their money in the Grand Valley. There’s nothing mixed about that.