Paint by numbers picture of economy emerges

Most of the year-end numbers are now in, offering a more complete picture of the Mesa County economy in 2015. Some of those numbers are encouraging — sales and lodging taxes, for example, and real estate sales in particular. But the numbers for the labor market continue to disappoint.

For those keeping score, here’s a brief recap:

The City of Grand Junction reported a 2.6 percent year-over-year increase in combined sales and use tax collections. Mesa County reported an even heftier gain at 5.1 percent. Those numbers reflect increases in sales across a range of categories.

Lodging tax collections, a measure of hotel and motel stays, advanced 9.1 percent in 2015 compared to 2014.

A total of 4,600 real estate transactions worth a collective $984 million were reported in Mesa County during 2015. Compared to 2014, transactions increased 11.1 percent and the combined dollar volume of those deals climbed 21.6 percent. The year-end numbers for 2015 were the highest in Mesa County since 2008, but still have a long way to go to match the market peak of 2006.

The seasonally unadjusted employment rate in Mesa County climbed two-tenths of a point to finish 2015 at 5.3 percent. That’s actually three-tenths of a point higher than December 2014. Over the past year, Mesa County payrolls have declined 1,119, the number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work has edged up 182 and the overall labor force has shrunk 937. While employment in many other areas of Colorado has rebounded and topped prerecession levels, the Mesa County labor force remains more than 14 percent below the peak of 84,000 in November 2009.

So what, exactly, do the numbers mean?

Some aspects of the Mesa County economy continue to recover, including the retail sector. Automotive and restaurant sales have been especially strong. Increased lodging tax collections reflect an improving tourism business, an important economic driver in the region. The real estate market has enjoyed steady growth over the past five years with appreciation in home prices. Large commercial transactions accounted for the bulk of the increase in dollar volume in 2015, and the lower prices of commercial real estate in Mesa County compared to Denver and the Front Range continue to attract investors.

Meanwhile, though, the labor market in Mesa County continues to lag behind. While monthly unemployment rates in Mesa County have come down, the decrease hasn’t been nearly as dramatic as other areas of Colorado. The statewide rate slipped another tenth to 3.5 percent in December, the lowest level since April 2007. More troublesome, Mesa County payrolls and overall labor force have shrunk. The labor market reflects what’s long been the dependence of the local market on the energy sector. And when the energy sector has cycled downward, which has been the case as oil and natural gas prices have dropped, the job market has suffered.

Ultimately, the paint by numbers picture of the Mesa County economy gratefully includes some cheerful attributes, but some not so much. Until the energy sector rebounds or the economy finally becomes more diverse and therefore resilient, the picture isn’t likely to significantly change.