Tale of two economies: Here’s hoping the story has a happy ending

 Statistics continue to tell what could be called a tale of two cities in contrasting the differences between Denver and Grand Junction. It would be a stretch to say it’s the best of times or the worst of times. That’s certainly not the case. Nonetheless, there’s little doubt Grand Junction and Mesa County lag behind Denver and other areas of Colorado in experiencing the full effects of economic recovery.

Alison Felix, an economist and executive with the Denver branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, put it this way during a presentation in Grand Junction: “It probably doesn’t feel like a recovery has taken hold yet.”

Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, perhaps stated it best in her analysis of the latest labor market estimates. “It feels almost like there’s two economies going on in this state.”

To keep matters in proper perspective, it’s important to affirm economic conditions are improving in Mesa County by three important measures:

  • The monthly unemployment rate has slipped below 8 percent for the second time in four months and dropped more than a point since this time last year.
  • Through the first eight months of 2013, real estate transactions and the dollar volume of those sales are up 6.9 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively, over the same span in 2012.
  • The average price of properties sold on the Multiple Listing Service in Mesa County has increased 7 percent over the past year.

Still, Mesa County suffers in comparison to the more robust recovery that’s occurred elsewhere in Colorado. While the Mesa County workforce remains more than 7 percent below its peak in November 2008, nonfarm payrolls statewide have rebounded to pre-recession levels. Although the real estate market has substantially recovered in Mesa County, building activity, sales and home prices all remain far below pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, residential construction activity and housing prices in the Denver area have climbed past previous peaks.

Why the differences? One of the most common explanations is that Mesa County lagged behind other areas of the state and nation in entering the recession. In soaring higher and then falling farther, the area continues to lag behind in the recovery. What’s more, the economy on the Front Range is not only much larger, but also more diversified than that in Mesa County.

Those answers offer hope that changing business cycles eventually will bring improving conditions to Mesa County. Recall that it wasn’t that long ago Mesa County boasted one of the fastest growing labor forces and housing markets in the country. It would be nice, though, if the steep climbs and sharp drops of what’s been a roller coaster economy over the past decade were less severe.

Meanwhile, ongoing efforts to attract businesses to the area will pay off not only in creating not only badly needed jobs, but also a more diverse and resilient economy.

Undoubtedly, the tale of two cities and two economies ultimately will offer a happy ending. Here’s hoping it comes sooner rather than later.