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As COVID fades, county faces older economic challenges

Attracting workers still a challenge for area, speaker says at chamber forum

Last Year Forum

Shown during 2020's pre-pandemic version of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce economic forum, JSU's Dr. Mark Hearn addresses the crowd at the CMP in Anniston. 

As Calhoun County pulls away from the economic doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Hearn said, the area is going to have to confront the economic problems it faced before 2020. 

“Good people, good workers, they are hard to find,” said Hearn, a professor in the department of management at Jacksonville State University.

Hearn spoke to members of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce via Zoom Friday in a virtual version of the chamber’s annual update on the status of the state and local economy. 

Today, the local economy is a COVID long-hauler, back from the brink but still fighting some symptoms of the pandemic. The economy has mostly recovered from the economic shock of the April shutdown intended to stop the spread of the virus, but Hearn’s numbers show there were 3,800 fewer people employed at the end of 2020, compared to the beginning of the year. Labor force numbers — the count of people working or still seeking work — dropped by about 1,900.

New COVID cases are on the decline, and Hearn said statewide surveys show growing confidence in the economy.

“The number one response was: ‘Things are better,’” he said. “It’s like it’s better after a car wreck, when you crawl away from it.”

Nearly two-thirds of local employers, surveyed by the chamber, said they intend to slightly increase wages this year.

Half said they expected a slight increase in demand for their products in 2021, and 17 percent said they expect a major increase. 

Still, there are signs that people aren’t spending the way they used to. The rate of savings is up, Hearn said. Lodging taxes dropped, a sign that the area’s once-growing tourism industry — based in part on cycling venues and other outdoor activities — slumped because of the pandemic. 

Local tax collections showed the uneven effect of the pandemic. Most local cities saw their tax revenues climb despite the pandemic, Hearn said, but Oxford — the area’s retail hub — saw a decline. Statewide, the money brought in by taxes on online sales nearly doubled. Calhoun County governments brought in around $4 million from those taxes. 

Manufacturing also took a hit in 2020, with Federal Mogul and Honeywell announcing closures in the local area. Don Hopper, director of the local Economic Development Council, said those losses were offset somewhat by expansions at existing plants such as the auto supplier IAC and Bridgewater Interiors.

“We did have several expansions,” he said. 

The brightest spot of the past year, Hearn said, was in real estate, where housing sales jumped 20 percent and prices rose 12 percent. Housing experts have long said the current housing boom is driven largely by low interest rates brought on by the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, Hearn said, the local economy was doing as well as it ever had. The biggest dark spot on the horizon was the county’s shrinking population and the potential loss of young workers drawn away to other communities.

Hearn cited that problem again this year, though with a more optimistic tone. Across the Southeast, he said, the number of “quits” — people leave a job without being terminated, presumably to work elsewhere — was down in 2020. Numbers from moving companies suggest the state is drawing in more new residents than it’s losing, Hearn said.

The housing boom could work to the Anniston area’s advantage, too, Hearn said. People in bigger cities may want to move to a place where they can afford a bigger house.

“People are buying space,” he said. “They don’t want to be in a high-density urban environment.”

Census numbers show the county’s population dropping steadily over the past 10 years, but those numbers are yearly estimates and have been wrong before. In 2010, Calhoun County’s population jumped by a few thousand when the census found more people than the previous year’s estimate predicted. Hearn said new numbers aren’t likely to come out until well into the year.

 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.