Coweta fastest-growing county in region
by W. Winston Skinner
The west Georgia region’s economy is strengthening, and Coweta County is now the fastest-growing county in the region.
Those were two messages from Dr. William “Joey” Smith at the 2013 Economic Forecast Breakfast at the University of West Georgia on Tuesday.
"We’re still experiencing some pain here, but we’re not at the point we were a year or two years ago,” Smith said — speaking in the Campus Center Ballroom on the main campus of UWG in Carrollton.
Looking over the crowd of about 370 — including a number of business and government officials from Coweta County — Smith said he can tell people are feeling better about the economy than they were the past two years. "I can just feel that," he said.
Smith’s comments centered on the counties of Coweta, Carroll, Douglas, Haralson, Paulding and Polk. The Center for Business and Economic Research at West Georgia closely studies trends in those counties. “The region has lots of promise over the next two to three years,” he said.
The region has seen “positive growth in employment levels” from 2010-2013, Smith said.
"What kinds of jobs are we adding? Well, it’s mainly service jobs," he said. While the term often makes people think of fast-food workers, service also includes the fast-growing and higher-paying medical field.
"Some of these service jobs are not low-paying jobs," Smith emphasized. In recent years, service jobs have grown from 62 percent to 85 percent of jobs in the region.
Coweta County has had the highest job growth in the region during the past year — 4.45 percent job growth. There were declines in government jobs, .74 percent, and manufacturing, 2.96 percent, but the service job numbers increased 7.68 percent.
The region has "rebounded better than the state overall" — with more service jobs and "more jobs — period,” Smith said. “Service has become a more important part of the west Georgia job mix.”
He said health care job numbers have continued to grow through much of the past few years with only a slight drop at one point. "There is no such thing as a recession-proof job, but there are some jobs that are recession resistant," Smith said. Smith said government spending is the weak link in the regional economy right now. All counties in the region have shed employees in the last few years.
Manufacturing is behind where it was before the economic downturn but is looking more promising. "The demand for the goods and services we produce locally — they’re in demand now,” he said — specifically mentioning food products and wire.
"The new housing market has actually started to turn the corner," he said. All counties in the region except Haralson County are showing growth in housing starts.
"Across the rest of the region, we're seeing almost twice the permits for housing than we did last year. We starting to put new houses on site," Smith said.
He said the month before the banking issues that led to the financial downturn, there were 1,932 new unemployment claims in the region. This past month, there were 1,827, showing the area is "just now back" to the pre-recession level.
"We're seeing the benefit of the jobs that are coming back to our area," Smith said. "New people who are moving into our area — they're finding employment here or they’re employed somewhere. That's good news.”
Manufacturing jobs reached a peak in the region in 2007, when there were 24,000 manufacturing workers. Now there are about 20,200, but Smith said there is reason for optimism because of numerous projects that have been announced. He predicted there will be 20,500 manufacturing jobs by the end of year. He expects about half the manufacturing jobs losses to be regained by the end of 2014 and all of them by 2015 or 2016.
Population growth and movement are important economically in west Georgia. “Our economy has depended on people moving here for jobs," Smith said.
He said Haralson and Polk counties lost population between 2011 and 2012. Paulding, one of the fastest growing counties in the state a few years ago, is "not even the fastest-growth county in the region,” Smith said. That superlative is now held by Coweta County.
Regionally, population growth has been almost flat. “We were expecting growth to be almost exponential, but that just hasn't happened,” Smith said.
Area income levels also remain below pre-recession thresholds, but those numbers are “moving in an upward direction."
Smith said laws related to immigration may have had a negative impact on the overall population numbers for the region.
Foreclosures are "down considerably from the peak," Smith said. Georgia ranked 12th in the number of foreclosures last year — down from eighth a year earlier and third two years before.
"This is one of those rankings where we would like to be at the bottom," Smith said.
He said the region still has “a relatively high foreclosure rate" — with Carroll and Douglas counties having the highest rates in the area. Still, areas south and east of Atlanta have much higher foreclosure rates.
The number of days to sell a home is dropping, and home prices are beginning to rise.
“This means the market is shifting in the direction of the seller rather than the buyer. It’s not a seller’s market yet, but it’s moving in that direction,” Smith said.
He said he does not believe the region is headed toward another real estate bubble. He said new home permit numbers increased from 400 last year to about 825. In 2006, there were 9,000.
“We’re not at that bubble stage, not anywhere close to it yet,” he said.
Also speaking Tuesday were Kenneth Heaghney, state fiscal economist, and John Canally, senior vice president and economist with LPL Financial.
Dr. David Boldt, chairman of the economics department, said the breakfasts have been held annually since 1997.
Dr. Kyle Marrero, the new president of the university, also spoke briefly. He said UWG is "an institution that is looking to be relevant" and one that is seeking to make sure its graduates will “be ready to engage in a workforce."