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A slow, steady march forward for Cowlitz County's economy

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Columbia Ford Sales Representative Steven Sherard keeps trucks clean for prospective customers Monday. Sales of new and used cars in Cowlitz County were up 24 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same time last year, according to state Department of Revenue. 

A handful of recent reports highlights how Cowlitz County’s economy is churning slowly toward recovery:

  • Median home prices in Cowlitz County were $187,900 in July — an 18 percent jump year over year, according to Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
  • More people are taking out loans to cover purchases of big-ticket items like homes and cars. According to Cowlitz County Title, lenders loaned $52 million in July in Cowlitz County — up 22 percent from the previous year.
  • A July report shows that Longview had its eighth consecutive year of increased exports in 2014, when they hit a record, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
  • Retail trade sales expanded 13 percent to $176 million, over the same quarter a year earlier.

But churning is not sizzling. And there’s a ways to go before the local economy is healthy. Unemployment still lags behind the rest of the state’s. Exports may be slipping significantly. And construction activity has slowed considerably this year.

Job outlook

June’s jobless report estimates area employers added about 290 jobs in the past year, but unemployment was essentially unchanged from a year ago, at 7.7 percent. And the county continues to trail the state average, 5.3 percent.

Jim Franz, economics instructor at Lower Columbia College, said the county doesn’t have enough economic diversity.

“I think that’s an issue that keeps Cowlitz County’s unemployment rate a little higher than areas that are little more diverse (economically),” Franz said. “If you look at other counties around the state, you’ll find the same problem for these counties that are less populated.”

Although unemployment has dropped steadily in the past five years, the jobless rate is still nearly two percentage points higher than the pre-recession lows of 6 percent in April and May 2007.

“Even though it has dropped quite a bit since 2009, there’s still a ways to go in terms of recovery,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department.

Housing/retail sales

In spite of a tepid job report last month, housing and retail sales improved in the first quarter.

“We’re still slowly coming out the recession here. Market values are slowly appreciating,” said Joe Amrine, senior vice president and chief credit officer at Fibre Federal Credit Union.

Buying a house sets off a flurry of furniture and home improvement purchases, points out Jan Teague, president and CEO of Washington Retail Association.

“When housing is strong, retail in general is strong,” Teague noted.

Rising housing prices and a stabilizing stock market can also make people feel wealthier and more secure, at least on paper, Franz said. And beyond the abstract concept of wealth, lower gas prices relative to a year ago also could be putting more money in consumers’ pockets, Franz said.

Those trends helped to lift sales in several retail sectors, including new and used auto sales, which were up 24 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period last year.

Columbia Ford president Pat Sari said sales at his dealership were “moderately higher” than last year, boosted by more people purchasing luxury cars and increased government fleet contracts.

Earlier this year, University of Washington bought 12 electric cars from the Longview dealership, for instance.

“There’s a lot of pretty good attitudes, but there are still a lot of people that are cautious,” Sari added.

And there’s another caveat: After a surge in construction last year, sales in the retail industry nosedived 43 percent in the first quarter.

Bailey, the regional economist, cautioned that construction tends to bounce up and down.

Last quarter’s dip could be attributed in part to completion of the Temco Grain Terminal expansion at the Port of Kalama late last year. Commercial construction sales will likely rise next year, when a proposed $1.8 billion methanol plant is scheduled to break ground at Port of Kalama.

Exports

While consumers here have opened their pockets more widely, the same can’t be said of overseas trading partners. There are signs exports have slowed or stagnated after a record year last year.

A July report from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that local exports surged 42 percent in 2014 — pushed up by growing exports of crops and chemicals. The dollar value of all those exports hit a record $2.9 billion.

But the export boom could be slowing, in part because of the residual effects of the West Coast port slowdown and in part because of the strong U.S. dollar. Those factors damaged profits in the first six months of the year at both Weyerhaeuser Co. and KapStone, according to the companies.

Also in the first six months of the year, total exports leaving Port of Longview’s docks plunged 19 percent, pulled down by falling log and grain exports.

Log exports tumbled 49 percent, and argi-products (including grains) slipped almost 20 percent.

“We’ve had a very slow summer … because demand is being supplied in other places,” said Jerry Gibson, manager at Export Grain Terminal in Longview. Gibson expects the fall harvest to help, but he isn’t betting on another record year. However, he’s a long-term optimist about the Columbia River’s potential as a grain export center.

“We all know that there will be world conditions that don’t always favor us, and I think that’s what the growth has seen. Now we’re in a lull, but we’re in a position to take advantage (of growing demand) when it presents itself,” Gibson added.

Both Franz and Amrine argued the local economy will need to diversify itself to make the area more recession-proof.

“We continue to grow and diversify our economy here locally and we attract new business to help grow family-wage jobs, and I think that’s the focus,” Amrine said.

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