Recession easing; uncertainty remains

Published 9:18 am Wednesday, January 27, 2010

FRANKLIN—As Western Tidewater prepares to grapple with the loss of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill this spring; signs are pointing toward economic recovery for its neighbors.

Economists are predicting that the Hampton Roads area will begin to experience a slight recovery from the economic recession this year. Slight growth is expected in the region’s gross product, civilian employment and retail sales.

The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission recently released its regional economic forecast for 2010. The report outlines the expected growth in the region’s economy.

“It shows a very mild recovery,” said Greg Grootendorst, the chief economist for the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. He said that the region didn’t see the decline that other areas experienced during the recession, because of the military presence and the fact that Hampton Roads has experienced “subdued growth” in population and jobs for several years.

Grootendorst warned against “using the regional forecast as a proxy” for Western Tidewater, because of the effect of the closure of IP’s closure.

“(The effect is) certainly going to be concentrated in the Western Hampton Roads area,” he said. Grootendorst said the region could expect higher unemployment rates and a “significant decrease” in retail sales and overall employment after the mill closes.

He said former mill workers would likely be searching for new jobs “all points outward,” including the Hampton Roads cities and the Richmond and Williamsburg areas.

“There is a lot of competition for any open positions,” he said. “Everybody’s looking for jobs, and we’re only seeing slight growth.”

The report forecasts that Hampton Roads’ unemployment rate will hover around 5.8 percent this year, an improvement of one percentage point over last year. Civilian employment is expected to grow 0.8 percent, an improvement over last year when employment fell by nearly 1 percent.

Retail sales are expected to increase 1.6 percent this year. They decreased more than 6 percent last year.

Auto and truck sales as well as the values of single-family home permits fell about 25 percent last year. Auto and truck sales are expected to rise 2.5 percent and the value of single-family home permits is expected to remain flat.

The region’s hotel revenues are expected to decline by about 1.2 percent, an improvement over last year when revenues fell 7 percent.

Grootendorst said many experts believe the recession ended last year, but so far the nation has experienced a “jobless recovery.” He said it could be some time before employment levels recover from the recession.