Regional economy sees uptick

Dec. 14, 2012 @ 06:30 AM

FOREST CITY — While still holding one of the highest unemployment rates in western North Carolina, Rutherford County also saw the largest decrease in that number in the region in October.

A report issued by the Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis (CEPA) at Appalachian State University this week indicated that Rutherford County had the third-highest unemployment rate (12.7 percent) in October but, also had the highest decrease (0.7 percent) over the year in the region.

"We have had some pretty significant projects come to Rutherford County and the area," said Matt Blackwell, executive director of the Rutherford County Economic Development Commission.

Over the entire region of 25 western North Carolina counties, the economic activity increased by 0.4 points in October. It was the sixth straight month of increases in the index the CEPA uses to track economic activity in the region, according to the report.

"This is certainly promising," said Dr. Todd Cherry, director of CEPA, in a statement. "During the last six months, we have seen consistently strong gains in regional economic activity."

Cherry added that, over the last two months (September and October), the region added approximately 15,000 jobs. The largest employment gains came in McDowell, Yancey and Graham counties, with 6.8, 3.7 and 2.4 percent increases, respectively.

The report indicated that all 25 counties in the region saw increases in seasonally-adjusted county-level employment. For the region, unemployment was at 9.4 percent in October, which is a decrease of 0.2 points from the September and 0.7 points from October 2011.

Rutherford County had the third-highest unemployment in western North Carolina for October, with 12.7 percent. Only Graham (16.5 percent) and Swain (14.0 percent) counties rated higher unemployment.

However, Rutherford County had the largest drop in unemployment for the region with a 0.7 percent decrease. Graham and Transylvania counties each had a 0.6 percent decrease.

"We are, as a state and as a region, seeing a good activity level of interest in the state," Blackwell said. "That results in a lot of locations for business and development in western North Carolina being looked at."

In 2012, Rutherford County had two project announcements — Ameridial and Valley Fine Foods — with over 100 jobs and/or an investment of over $10 million. Combined, the two facilities had $14.1 million in investment in Rutherford County and approximately 500 new jobs.

Those came on the heels of the Facebook Phase 2 and Horsehead Corporation announcements in 2011 that totaled $811 million dollars in investment and 350 new jobs. Those announcement figures came from Advantage West Economic Development Group, a partner with CEPA to produce the report.

"It is still a step in the right direction," Blackwell said. "We are adding jobs at a much better pace than 12 and 24 months ago."

Prior to the 2012 General Election, Blackwell said that outside inquiries for new business development had slowed however, as the end of the year approaches, the county is starting to see more of those requests for information.

"We are getting more requests from the Department of Commerce or site coordinators," Blackwell said.

While regional and county indicators show a marked increase in economic activity for western North Carolina and Rutherford County, Blackwell said that it is still too early to tell if the figures indicate a consistent future rise in employment and business development.

"We need to keep this pace, or even increase it, to get out of the past economic climate," Blackwell said.