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Business leaders say state of local economy depends on where you look

SALISBURY — Business recovery during COVID-19 is highly dependent on the type and size of the business that you’re talking about, says Rod Crider, president and CEO of the Rowan Economic Development Commission.

While some restaurants are opening again, movie theaters remain closed, for example.

Moreover, many economic indicators come out long after the period to which it’s relevant. Sales tax revenue for the county is only released after being remitted, calculated and sent in over the course of months. When the economy is in flux due to things like shutdowns, that can make it difficult to analyze the impact and recovery of the economy due to COVID-19.

The whole thing is unprecedented, so “there’s no playbook” for businesses to use to make projections about revenue, said Tourism Development Authority Director James Meacham. That said, there are some other economic indicators that can be used to evaluate how Rowan County is recovering.

Overnight lodging revenues are one such indicator and include revenues spent by overnight visitors at lodging businesses in Rowan County, Meacham said. Those same visitors also often use restaurants and gas stations in their stay, Meacham said, so it can be an indicator for the economy overall.

That data shows the drastic difference from last year, a drop due to COVID-19, and a relative increase in May from the previous month.

In February, overnight lodging revenues in the county were up 17% compared to the same month in 2019. However, in March that number was down 34% compared to March 2019. In April, that number dropped further down to 64% compared to a year earlier. In May, though, it was only down 49% compared to May 2019.

There is also data based off of the number of rooms rented, Meacham said. That number was up by 18.6% this May compared to the previous month. Much of that increase is most likely due to business travel, as opposed to vacation or leisure travel, he said.

Despite the evidence of a relative economic uptick, unemployment numbers increased in March and April. In March there were 3,747 initial jobless claims in Rowan County due to COVID-19, Meacham said. In April, there were 4,868 more initial jobless claims due to COVID-19.

May numbers have not been released yet for Rowan County. They may better account for the Payroll Protection Program loan forgiveness that was being rolled out in April, he said.

Crider is optimistic about the economic future of the county. Local government measures taken about five years ago after the recession beginning in 2008 have set the county up to recover, he said.

Additional financial support for proactive economic development activities have helped, Crider said. More marketing, digital tools and virtual site visits for businesses have been pursued by Rowan County Economic Development Commission as a result of the Economic Recovery Task Force put together near the beginning of the pandemic. Virtual potential site visits for businesses, for example, can enable businesses to look forward to possible relocation or expansion while still maintaining social distancing.

There have been “a number of inquiries” from businesses both currently located in the county and those located elsewhere about expanding in Rowan County, Crider said. The development commission has actually been working steadily during the pandemic, he said, despite the shutdowns and economic impacts of COVID-19.

Businesses are starting to be able to look forward again to recovery and growth, Crider said, so he is optimistic for Rowan County.

“We’re starting a slow climb back to recovery,” Crider said, although he noted that the timeline of that recovery still isn’t exactly clear. “As it does, Rowan County will be in a position to take advantage of that growth.”

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