What’s ahead? Outlook for Mesa County upbeat

Diane Schwenke
Diane Schwenke
Kelly Flenniken
Kelly Flenniken

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Higher tax collections, increasing real estate activity and more upbeat expectations for business conditions are among the signs pointing toward  an improving economy in Mesa County in 2015, officials say.

It’s no longer so much a question if growth will continue, but how much and how fast.

“Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It looks like we’re going to do better in ’15 than we did in ’14.”

Kelly Flenniken, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, agrees. “I feel really cautiously optimistic about 2015 and what it looks like for our community.”

Flenniken was among the contributors to an annual economic forecast prepared at the University of Colorado that states Mesa County is “poised for a good year in 2015.”

Richard Wobbekind, executive director of the Business Research Division at the Leeds School of Business at CU, says economic data for Mesa County reflects growth. But it could take a while longer for the economy to fully recovery, especially in regaining the work force lost in the recession.

Schwenke says several economic indicators reflect improving conditions, including sales tax collections and real estate activity.

According to reports for November, the latest month available, city sales and use tax collections increased 5.1 percent and county collections increased 1.4 percent over the same month in 2013.

Both the number and dollar volume of real estate transactions in Mesa County through November of 2014 top those for the same span in 2013.

Schwenke said she’s been especially impressed by the long-term upward trend in tax collections and real estate sales.

The latest results of a chamber membership survey confirm what Schwenke said she’s heard anecdotally from local business owners and managers in that they expect improving conditions.

Chamber members were asked in a survey how they think their businesses will fare in 2015.

Nearly 44 percent of those who responded said they expect 2015 will be similar to 2014. But a total of more than

45 percent said they anticipate that 2015 will be somewhat more or substantially more prosperous than 2014.

“We hope more folks are starting to feel upbeat,” Schwenke says.

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County dropped to 4.1 percent in October, the latest month for which estimates are available. Over the past year, the jobless rate has dropped more than three points to its lowest level in six years.

The average annual wage in Mesa County for the second quarter of 2014 was $49,051, an increase of 1.1 percent from the second quarter of 2013.

Still, the overall labor force remains smaller than a year ago and almost 9 percent below peak employment levels in 2008.

Wobbekind says it’s going to be especially difficult for Mesa County to regain that work force given the kind of rapid job growth that occurred in the region during the energy boom that preceded the bust. “It’s not a fair comparison.”

But the availability of labor ultimately could offer an advantage, he adds.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center through October of this year has increased 15 percent over the same span last year.

Schwenke says an increasing number of the business owners and manager she’s talked to indicate they’re interested in hiring. But some of them are having difficulty in finding applicants with the skills they need, she adds.

Flenniken says robust economic growth elsewhere in Colorado bodes well for Mesa County.

Many of the industry sectors expected to do well statewide in 2015 also constitute important components of the local economy, she says, including the agriculture, leisure and hospitality and health services sectors.

The effort to further narrow the gap in economic growth between Mesa County and other areas of Colorado must include support for the expansion of existing businesses and recruiting new businesses, Flenniken says.

Several industry sectors are expanding, Flenniken says, the health services sector in particular, with construction under way on a $49 million facility for Community Hospital as well as a $40 million project to complete two more floors of the patient tower at St. Mary’s Hospital.

The prospects for recruiting new business vary by industry, Flenniken says. “It’s kind of a mixed bag.”

What hasn’t changed, she says, is the quality of life that makes Mesa County an attractive place in which to do business and live. “I think we’ve got a really good product.”