Signs point to an improving economy

Katie Worrall
Katie Worrall

I recently reviewed some thoughts I wrote down at the beginning of the year about the economic and business outlook. The beginning of the year typically is a time for optimism and starting over,  a chance to rebuild. The preceding years have been tough here in Grand Junction and we were all ready for a change. Did it happen? Are we pulling out of the recession?

This is a mid-term election year. We’ve been inundated with advertising telling us what’s working and, particularly, what isn’t. I’ve heard repeatedly Colorado has the fastest-growing economy in the country. It doesn’t seem so here in Grand Junction.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Grand Junction job growth is down 2.91 percent over the past five years, whereas Denver is up by 8.97 percent and Boulder is up by 10 percent. Boulder is also the No. 1 startup place for tech companies in the U.S.

Here are some more Denver statistics to be jealous of — 29,000 jobs have been added year to date, there’s been a 3 increase in retail sales this year and 7,300 new home starts. The legalization of recreational marijuana has filled nearly 3 million square feet of industrial space in metro Denver.

What about Grand Junction? We typically lag behind the Front Range in the economic cycle, and our economy is largely based on energy. Drilling activity is down significantly on the Western Slope. Coal mines are also operating at much lower levels.

The Western Slope economy is improving, though. The numbers aren’t dramatic, and confidence hasn’t fully returned. But the increase in economic indicators is steady and diverse.

The unemployment numbers are down, sales tax revenue is up and building in both residential and commercial construction is increasing. There are more requests this year for job applicants through the Mesa County Workforce Center, increasingly for skilled and professional labor. I recently spoke with a Grand Junction oil and gas company that’s adding about 15 jobs. That was encouraging to hear from that sector. Manufacturers are hiring in small numbers. Every job matters.

The recent ground breaking of the $49 million Community Hospital facility will bring multiple jobs and benefit many ancillary services, generating additional dollars circulated in our local economy. The completion of the Avalon Theater renovation provides an improved venue for noteworthy concerts, movies and local recitals. Other construction includes a new parking garage for the Veterans Hospital, a renovation for a local shelter and many area road improvements. A medical clinic purchased a facility on Orchard Mesa and will renovate and provide much needed services for that area.

Retail is growing again along the 24 Road corridor. There are plans for many retail restaurants, shops and service providers to fill the space in front of the Regal Theaters and  Value Inn.  The empty Johnny Carino’s building will have a new tenant to be announced soon. Empty buildings along Patterson and in the mall area are becoming absorbed.

I toured many of the homes in the recent Parade of Homes. There were a few high-end homes reminiscent of the boom days. Many empty subdivisions have new homes under construction, some on a speculative basis.

There are plans to upgrade our connectivity for phone and Internet across the valley. I believe that’s the key to economic growth in our area. We won’t attract the large employers, but offer a great place to live and recreate for employees or small groups able to telecommute. The cost of living is low, there’s no traffic to contend with, there’s beautiful scenery, lots of sunshine and many opportunities for hiking, skiing, biking, fishing and whatever else you want to do outside. With the advent of the Internet, the need for local shopping and entertainment isn’t as important as it used to be. Getting more people here to live and work — and not just receive pensions — will provide growth for the economy.

Everything happening is a good sign that some confidence has returned to the Western Slope. Employers are hiring, residents are shopping, eating out and even buying new homes. Even better, the current improvement in our economy isn’t based on one economic sector. It’s more diverse this time. It’s not a boom, but hopefully it will last.