What now? Pandemic derailed 2020, but economy could get back on track

Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

While a pandemic derailed what was forecast as a good year for the Mesa County economy in 2020, there are opportunities to get back on track in 2021.

The unemployment rate has retreated nearly seven points since peaking in April even as the labor force has grown and wages have increased. Manufacturing is expected to increase, and real estate demand remains strong.

“While the pandemic has had an impact on all aspects of the community, the county is recovering and outperforming other counties and the state. The community in the Grand Valley is resilient and will continue to forge ahead in the face of adversity,” according to a summary in the Colorado Business Economic Outlook for 2021.

Statewide, employment is expected to grow next year, but not enough to make up for losses attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions.

Moreover, the outlook will depend on the ongoing effects of the pandemic, the availability of vaccines and the extent to which the economy will reopen, says Richard Wobbekind, senior economist at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This is a really difficult environment to do an economic forecast.”

The research division at the Leeds School of Business compiles the Colorado Business Economic Outlook with sections for 13 industry sectors and seven geographic regions. Business, education and government officials contribute to the forecast.

Steven Jozefczyk, deputy director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, contributed to the section on Mesa County. So did Mara Hardy, business development manager at GJEP, and Nathan Perry, an economics professor at Colorado Mesa University. Bray Real Estate, the Grand Junction Regional Airport, Mesa County Workforce Center and Visit Grand Junction also contributed.

In Mesa County, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate stood at 5.7 percent in October, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The jobless rate stood at 12.6 percent in April.

Nonfarm employment decreased 10.9 percent from January to April, but since has rebounded to recoup most of those losses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The weekly number of initial filings for unemployment benefits in Mesa County has declined since peaking at 2,583 for the week ending March 28.

As of October, the Mesa County labor force stood at 79,013. That’s up 2.1 percent from the same month in 2019.

Annual wages in Mesa County averaged $46,275 for the four quarters ending in the first quarter of 2020, a 3.9 percent increase year-over year.

The health care sector accounted for most of the increase. Already the largest industry in Mesa County, health care employment is expected to grow 3.4 percent in 2021. Five of the top 10 employers in the county are in the health care sector.

Energy sector payrolls in Mesa County continued to shrink, falling from a peak of 2,583 in the fourth quarter of 2014 to 1,491 in the first quarter of 2020, the lowest level since 2008. Western Colorado drilling activity remains on pace for record-low permitting in 2020.

The travel and tourism sector, an economic driver that accounts for nearly a third of the sales tax base in Grand Junction, has declined in the midst of the pandemic.

Lodging tax collections, a measure of hotel and motel stays, totaled $916,000 in Grand Junction for the first 10 months of 2020. That’s down 35.6 percent from the same span in 2019. For September, passenger traffic at Grand Junction Regional Airport was down 45 percent on a year-over-year basis.

Outdoor recreation remains a draw, however, for visitors as well as businesses.

The completion of the Palisade Plunge, a 32-mile mountain bike trail from the top of the Grand Mesa into Palisade, is expected to bring as much as $5 million a year to the Mesa County economy.

Four outdoor recreation businesses relocated to the Grand Valley in 2020, including Canfield Bikes, Kappius Components and Broken Carbon. ProStart, a French manufacturer of gates and accessories for bicycle motocross, selected Grand Junction as the location for its first office in the United States.

Manufacturing employment is expected to grow 1.3 percent in Mesa County in 2021. Capco — a defense contractor that manufactures bomb fin assemblies, impulse cartridges, machine gun tripods and other products — has increased staffing by nearly 20 percent to fufill new contracts. CoorsTek relocated its ceramic armor production to Grand Junction and invested $16.5 million in new equipment.

Real estate activity remains on pace in 2020 to match or even exceed 2019.

Through the first 11 months of 2020, 5,122 real estate transactions worth a combined total of nearly $1.6 billion were reported in Mesa County. Compared to the same span in 2019, transactions increased 2.3 percent and dollar volume rose 3 percent. For all of 2019, 5,393 transactions worth a collective $1.67 billion were reported.

Low residential inventories have hampered sales while also pushing up prices and promoting new home construction.

At the end of November, there were 351 active residential listings in Mesa County, about half the inventory of a year ago.

The median sales price of homes sold through the first 11 months of 2020 rose 12.2 percent to $286,000.

During that same span, 714 building permits for single family homes were issued in Mesa County, up 8.5 percent compared to a year ago. The construction of multifamily projects also has increased.

The Colorado Rural Jump-Start tax incentive program continues to promote economic development in Mesa County. In 2020, three businesses were approved for the program, bringing to 18 the total number of companies approved since the program began in 2016.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership has assisted with the relocation of five businesses to the Grand Valley — the four outdoor recreation companies and one software company.

Additional development opportunities are available at the Riverfront at Las Colonias Park and Dos Rios projects in Grand Junction as well as a commercial and industrial business park in Fruita.

The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce will host its annual economic outlook presentation as a free virtual event set for noon Dec. 14. To register or obtain more information, call 242-3214 or visit www.gjchamber.org.