Mesa County economic forecast: Growing, but slowing

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Nathan Perry

Nathan Perry expects growth to continue in Mesa County in 2020, but at what could be a slower pace.

Employment, population and gross domestic product should trend further upward, although the effects of a downturn in energy development also will be felt, said Perry, an associate professor of economics at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.

The overall outlook remains upbeat, he said. “There’s a lot of good news here in the Mesa County economy.”

Perry offered his overview during an economic forecast forum at CMU attended by more than 200 people.

The Mesa County labor market experienced five years of stagnation following double downturns in energy development and the economy, but has rebounded in the past four years, he said. While the overall labor force hasn’t yet returned to its prerecession peak, the number of employed people increased nearly 2,000 in both 2018 and 2019.

Some of the biggest gains have occurred in the construction and health care sectors. Health care, in particular, has become a bigger driver in the labor market and economy, he said. “We need to be aware of how massive health care is in Mesa County.”

Meanwhile, the energy sector plays a smaller role as low oil and natural gas prices slow exploration and production, Perry said. The situation in 2020 could be similar to what happened in 2016 with low prices and employment levels.

There’s a distinction, though, given the overall economy will continue to grow in 2020. “I think we’re going to feel it, but it’s going to be different.”

According to information from the state demographer, the Mesa County population stood at 148,657 in 2015 and is forecast to increase to 156,262 in 2020, he said. The population is expected to grow another 9,000 over the next five years and more than 23,000 over the next 10 years.

Some of the growth predicted for the Western Slope likely will spill over from the Front Range, but also come from other areas.

Population growth will bring economic growth, he said.

Gross domestic product, the broad measure of goods and services produced in an area, grew at an annual rate of nearly 5 percent in 2017 and 2018 and likely at a similar pace in 2019, Perry said.

Gross domestic product is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2 percent nationally in 2020, although there’s more uncertainty at this point in the business cycle nationally, Perry said.

In Mesa County, growth could come in at between 1 percent and 2 percent.

Perry said he expects employment to continue to grow with perhaps an additional 1,500 jobs. But jobs also could be lost in the energy sector, in turn affecting payrolls in other sectors. That could cut overall gains in half, but growth still would occur.

Meanwhile, other indicators offer encouragement, he said.

Per capita income continues to increase in Mesa County, rising to $44,935 in 2018. That trend likely continued in 2019 and will do so in 2020, although with a smaller increase, he said. In turn, the poverty rate continues to decline, dropping to 15.7 percent in 2018.

As in other areas of Colorado, Perry said the economy is becoming more diverse as employment increases in the health care and construction sectors, but declines in the energy sector. The growing proportion of retirees with steady incomes also has made Mesa County less susceptible to downturns.