What’s ahead? Will 2014 bring smooth driving or more curves?

Rich Wobbekind
Rich Wobbekind

Increased hiring across a range of industry sectors is expected to pull down unemployment and push up business prospects in Mesa County in 2014, according to an annual forecast prepared at the University of Colorado.

“Overall, Mesa County expects employment growth in the construction, aviation, aerospace, health care and food and beverage manufacturing industries,” states the 2014 Colorado Business Economic Outlook report. “These gains will help decrease the high unemployment rate and potentially attract new businesses and new investments and help expand existing local businesses in Mesa County,” the reported adds.

Richard Wobbekind, executive director of the Business Research Division at the CU Leeds School of Business, says the outlook is upbeat.

“The data for you does look pretty good.”

The statewide outlook is even more upbeat, and the effects of more robust economic conditions on the Front Range will be felt in other areas of Colorado, including Mesa County, Wobbekind says.

One difference remains a change of fortune in energy production with higher oil prices promoting development on the Front Range even as lower natural gas prices have hampered development on the Western Slope, he adds.

The 49th annual outlook report offers forecasts for 13 sectors as prepared by more than 100 business, government and industry professionals from across Colorado.

In Mesa County, economic recovery has been slow and the unemployment rate higher than state and national averages, the report states. The labor force and annual wages have decreased. Retail sales have dropped and along with them sales tax collections. Lodging tax collections, a measure of hotel and motel stays, has declined as well.

But a number of trends point toward improving conditions, the report states.

Although other locations in Western Colorado have expanded their retail offerings, Mesa County remains a regional hub not only for shopping, but also education and health care.

The health care sector in Mesa County will continue to expand, including a $40 million project now under way to complete two of four vacant floors on the 12-story patient tower at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.

The health care and social assistance sector accounts for about 15 percent of overall employment in the county and openings for personal care aides, home health aides and medical secretaries are expected to increase 30 percent to 40 percent, the report states.

Activity also is expected to increase in the energy and energy services industries, leading to a slight increase in employment. While some companies project a 15 percent increase in activity in 2014, others anticipate stable employment, the report states.

State and federal regulations could affect the energy industry, though, including proposed land-use policies to protect endangered sage grouse and a potential ban on hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas production.

Growth in the aerospace industry nationally should result in increased business locally, the report states. West Star Aviation already has announced plans to expand its operations at the Grand Junction Regional Airport with the construction of a 45,000-square-foot hangar and the addition of 150 new positions over the next five years.

Along with increased residential construction in Mesa County, construction is under way on two new truck stops to support the trucking industry. Future road projects are planned for Horizon Drive and North Avenue in Grand Junction.

There’s also been in an increase in food and beverage manufacturing in Mesa County, including a new brewery and hops processing plant. Employment in the sector is expected to continue to grow in 2014.

While the real estate market lags behind other areas of Colorado and the United States, sales have increased even as property foreclosure activity has decreased. “It is expected that modest gains will continue with increases in sales and homebuilding and a substantive reduction in refinancing activity,” the report states.

Tourism remains a “driving force” in the Mesa County economy with the attraction of outdoor recreational amenities and wineries. While overall lodging tax collections have declined, many recent events have drawn record attendance.

“Generally, it’s an upbeat forecast,” Wobbekind says.

Just as the international and national economies affect the state economy, more robust economic conditions along the Front Range will affect Mesa County, Wobbekind says. Tourism from one of the largest bases for the Grand Valley likely will increase, he adds, as will the sale of such local products as wine and fruit.

A variety of factors make the statewide outlook more upbeat, Wobbekind says. “With Colorado’s skilled work force, high-tech diversified economy, relatively low cost of doing business, global economic access and exceptional quality of life, the state is poised for long-term economic growth.”

Retail sales are predicted to increase 5 percent, even as the value of construction and housing permits also grows.

With the projected addition of more than 61,000 jobs in 2014, the statewide unemployment rate is expected to remain below 7 percent, Wobbekind says. The professional and business services sector is expected to lead the way with 14,200 new jobs; followed by construction with 11,000 new jobs; and trade, transportation and utilities with 9,100 new jobs.

 “After the deep recession we encountered as a state and nation, it is really a relief to be reporting strong positive job growth in Colorado,” Wobbekind says.

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