An increase in average annual wages and taxable retail sales helped the Grays Harbor County economy weather an annual period upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s according to Greater Grays Harbor Inc.’s Grays Harbor Economic Vitality Index report, which was discussed at a Zoom event on Tuesday.
“We showed a lot of resiliency and strength, a bullish attitude as Rep. (Derek) Kilmer (who spoke earlier) said,” said Lynette Buffington, Greater Grays Harbor CEO. “I know other folks haven’t done as well, but we have a positive story to tell, we are a stable economy” and a good place to do business.
The detailed report looks at several economic factors in some detail.
“In summary, average annual wages are going up, median home prices are up, taxable sales are up,” said Buffington. “The hotel/motel tax is down, but it’s been trending upward for years, so going down just a scooch isn’t too consequential right now.”
Hotel and motel tax revenue dipped 1.8 percent to $2.17 million in 2020 from $2.2 million in 2019. Tax revenue had been rising steadily over the previous five years, from $1.71 million in 2015, but with people encouraged to stay home revenue took a hit in March and April 2020.
Hotel and motel tax rebounded to “historic high revenues in September and October, making up nearly all of the loss in revenues from earlier in the year,” according to the report, as cabin fever-stricken people from outside the area made their way to the forests and beaches of the county.
Positive economic indicators included a 2.5% increase in taxable retail sales and a 5.7% increase in average annual wages. The median home price rose to $251,000 in 2020 from $215,200 in 2019. Existing home sales increased 5.1% during that time period, marking the ninth year in a row existing home sales have climbed.
On the negative side, total employment took a hit during the pandemic. The report stated the total number of jobs in the county dropped by 6.2% in 2020, compared with the nationwide drop of 5.9%.
That was a loss of 1,545 jobs in Grays Harbor County, primarily in hospitality (food service and accommodations jobs) with 349 jobs lost, educational services with 223, and manufacturing with 185 jobs lost. The unemployment rate spiked at 21% in April 2020, before dropping to 9.3% in December.
“The unemployment rate is a challenge and a point of conversation,” said Buffington. “Likely the reason for the increase in unemployment is we had a lot of folks in some of the lower wage jobs, or juggling multiple jobs, that left the workforce.”
She said going forward she hopes that some of the people in the lower wage jobs hit hard by pandemic restrictions transfer to more reliable employment, but that leaves a big gap in the number of people to fill the jobs they left.
“We need to find a way to fill those roles or we will lose those services because they can’t be staffed,” said Buffington.
Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave asked why the county’s unemployment rate consistently runs about 3% higher than the state.
“Grays Harbor, along with many rural counties in the state, tend to lag the more urban counties on various economic indicators such as unemployment,” said Grant Jones, who authored the report.
“The reasons behind this are complex, but include educational attainment, availability of employment opportunities, global and regional competitiveness of industry, trends in industry over time, such as the rise of the technology sector, and workforce readiness.”
Buffington gave some numbers related to the pandemic. Through 2020, the number of small businesses open in the county dropped more than 32%.
More than $150 million in COVID relief funding was funneled into the state, including just shy of $120 million in Economic Injury Disaster Loans and more than $26.5 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds.
Aberdeen, with its higher population, had more than $50 million in Payroll Protection Program funds, and just under $10 million in Economic Injury Disaster Loan funding.
Buffington said the report will be available online at graysharbor.org.