‘Fundamentals matter’: County’s economy, quality of life can make it resilient against COVID-19 impact

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 12, 2020

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — Though impacts of COVID-19 are still being seen and studied, economists and leaders predict one consequence that may emerge is a reconsideration of where families and individuals decide to live.

David Rhodes, of the North Carolina Department of Commerce, says the “fundamentals matter” when one decides where to relocate, work and live. Those fundamentals include a pool of skilled or trained workers in a community, the quality of education and the infrastructure.

Naturally, local leaders, including county commissioner chairman Greg Edds and Rowan Economic Development Commission CEO Rod Crider,  are confident Rowan County is a place that has strong resilience to the negative impacts of COVID-19.

“Our local economy is fundamentally strong. Our education leadership is laser-focused on aligning with each another, with our economic development commission’s goals and with local employers,” Edds stated in an opinion column published last week in the Salisbury Post. “Like never before, our community is increasingly a target for new retail, manufacturing, industrial, supply chain and distribution operations from across the U.S. and around the world. We have land, critical infrastructure, the people, the training capacity, part of one of the fastest growing regions in America and located in a great state.”

Edds, as well as other leaders, have become proficient in reciting the assets of the county, including the county’s prime location, the Interstate 85 widening, quality tourist attractions, an education system with new investments and so-called “mega-employers” like Food Lion, Freightliner and Chewy.

But local leaders’ confidence isn’t all that’s providing some optimism about the county’s resilience.

Chmura Economics and Analytics, a consulting firm that analyzes labor data across the nation, recently pulled employment data across the nation to compile an economic vulnerability index, which aims to measure the negative impact of the coronavirus on every county’s employment based on the regional industry makeup.

Rowan County’s number in the index was 98.74. The average vulnerability index is 100, which represents the average job loss due to COVID-19 based on the overall national industry makeup. Chmura CEO and Chief Economist Chris Chmura said Rowan’s ranking means its job industry largely makeup mirrors the U.S. industry makeup and falls in line with what’s expected nationwide. Rowan ranks 1,069, or slightly above average, out of a total of 3,141 counties, she said.

In the index, the firm ranked the types of industries that would be most and least impacted. Industries that are most vulnerable include the arts/entertainment/recreation sector, the accommodation and food service sector and the retail trade sector — meaning more jobs are projected to be lost in these industries. Chmura said national associations, such as the National Restaurant Association, estimate up to 80% of employees will be lost in these industries.

Some of the least vulnerable industries include the utilities sector, the company/corporate management sector, the public administration sector and the real estate/rental/leasing sector. Chmura said this is likely because the jobs can be conducted from home.

And while both the economic and health impact of the virus will depend on each region, people may take that impact into account when considering where to raise a family or retire in the future, she said.

The hospitality sector in Rowan County, which includes lodging, tourism and service-oriented businesses, has taken a massive hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic like the rest of the country. Rowan County Tourism Development Authority director James Meacham now estimates between two-thirds to 75% of labor has been lost — meaning workers have been furloughed or released — within the local lodging sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An average of at least 2,000 people worked in that sector locally prior to the pandemic.

But Rowan County fares well overall, said Crider, due to the diversity of the county’s economy, which makes it “more resilient,” The local economy doesn’t rely on any one industry to be sustainable, he said.

In a prior interview about Rowan’s growth according to U.S. Census data, Victor Wallace, the president of Wallace Realty, predicted the pandemic may “shake up” and make people rethink where they want to be if something similar happens again — potentially highlighting the value of smaller communities.

Wallace said the attractiveness of Rowan County can be attributed to a “slower pace lifestyle” while still being in close proximity to both Charlotte and Concord, which are logistical factors that can be attractive for older individuals who commute or are close to retirement.

He said recent investments in the local education system through “renewal” can serve as an attraction for families to relocate here.

Looking at the economic forecast optimistically and relying on the assumption from health care experts that the pandemic will last until May, Chmura said the U.S. should anticipate a short recession for about two quarters of the year, with a peak of 13.2% unemployment in the third quarter. In early March, the national unemployment rate was 4.4%, according to U.S. Department of Labor.

“The national economic outlook is sharp and short, not sustained,” Chmura said.

Another lesson learned from the pandemic may include national leaders reconsidering the country’s supply chain and its reliance on the global economy, according to North Carolina State University’s Michael Walden, who serves as the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and extension economist.

“(There may) be a new move to have a complementary, back-up supply chain,” Walden said, adding that “the pandemic has exposed there’s some risk” with globalization.

He added that the pandemic “teaches us we are still vulnerable.”

Another factor that drives recovery, both Chmura and Walden said, is consumer fear. While “people eventually will go back to restaurants and people eventually will go on vacation,” Walden predicts it will take at least a year to get back to how the economy was before the virus.

But resources from the federal government “can help economies get through this time,” Chmura said.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package that includes financial relief for businesses and citizens nationwide in the form of grants from the Small Business Administration, stimulus checks for Americans and unemployment insurance for displaced workers.

“We’ve been sound in the approach with how we’ve dealt with this pandemic,” Rhodes said, adding that North Carolina has been an attractive place for business and economic growth and will continue to demonstrate that.

And Crider said the county is “hopeful” to attract the new demand that results from the pandemic, crediting Rowan County as “so attractive from a living standpoint.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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