State rankings say Rowan County is less economically distressed heading into 2022

Published 12:10 am Thursday, December 2, 2021

SALISBURY — Rowan County’s time as one of the 40 most economically distressed counties in the state lasted only a year after it was upgraded in the 2022 tier rankings released Tuesday.

In accordance with state law, the Department of Commerce annually ranks the economic health of each of North Carolina’s 100 counties based on four factors: average unemployment rate, median household income, percentage growth in population and adjusted property tax base per capita. The 20 most prosperous counties are in tier three. The next 40 are in tier two. The 40 most distressed counties comprise tier one.

After dropping from 57th most distressed in 2020’s ranking to 38th in the 2021 rankings, Rowan County was downgraded from tier two to tier one. Now, after improving from 38th to 55th in the 2022 rankings, Rowan County has been elevated back to tier two — a grouping it was in since at least 2012 before last year’s dip.

In the rankings, No. 1 is most distressed and No. 100 is least distressed.

Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said the more favorable ranking is “good news, bad news,” because it reflects positively on the county. But it means the county is less eligible for state incentives available to more disadvantaged counties.

“The good news is it should make the folks of the county feel confident that Rowan County is really moving in a very positive direction,” Edds said. “The bad news is, if it is bad, we’ll get a little less help from the state. But, that’s the way it should be.”

Rowan was one of six counties moved to a less-distressed tier for the 2022 rankings, joining Alexander, Brunswick, Buncombe, New Hanover and Randolph. Chowan, Jones, Macon, Polk and Watauga were counties that moved to a more-distressed tier. Neighboring Iredell and Cabarrus remain tier three counties while Davidson and Stanly are still in tier two.

Rowan County’s higher ranking is primarily driven by improvements in both population growth rate and unemployment rate. The county moved up from No. 48 with a 1.63% increase in population growth from 2016-2019 to No. 74 with a 2.48% increase from July 2017-2020. The county’s population growth rate ranking is its highest ranking in any of the four categories measured. In this case, a higher ranking number is better.

Edds said the county’s surging growth rate is “unsurprising” given the way the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced where and how people can work now.

“With technology, companies and individuals are getting to the point where they can live anywhere they want to live,” Edds said. “Quality of life is rapidly moving up the list of the top 10 things, in fact it’s a top-five if not a top-three. Folks are looking at Rowan County as having that quality of life you can’t get in the big city metro areas.”

Evidence of Rowan County’s population growth can be seen in the housing market. In 2020, home sales for the year were up 12.4% as 1,892 homes were sold, according to Canopy Realtor Association. Pending sales showed 2,080 homes went under contract in 2020, an increase of 24.3% over 2019.

The local housing market has grown even hotter in 2021. Through October, new listings were up 9.1% over 2020. Closed sales were up 21.2%. Karla Foster, owner of New Pointe Realty, said in a statement Rowan County’s growth has continued to be on par with growth seen in the greater Charlotte region. 

While Rowan Economic Development Council President Rod Crider said he’s pleased to see the county’s population grow, he wants to focus on continuing to attract new residents to Rowan.

“There are 110 people a day who move into the Charlotte metro region, we’re told, and we’re only capturing 3-4% of that here in Rowan County,” Crider said. “We can do a better job of articulating why Rowan County is a great place to relocate.”

A high unemployment rate was the primary culprit for Rowan County dropping to tier one in 2021, but it improved in the 2022 rankings. The county’s unemployment ranking went from 7% and 25th in the 2021 to 5.37% and 37th in the new rankings. The updated unemployment rate ranking is based on the 12-month average unemployment rate spanning from Oct. 2020 to Sept. 2021.

Crider said he expects the area’s unemployment rate to continue to decrease. Rowan’s unemployment rate has been on a downward trajectory and was 3.8% in September, according to non-seasonally adjusted rates released by the Department of Commerce. The county’s ideal unemployment rate could be between 3-4%, Crider said, because it means there is some “elasticity” that shows there are workers available in Rowan. 

Rowan County’s median household income ranking also improved. Since the ranking is based on data from the most recent 12 months for which it is available, Rowan County’s 2019 median household income was used in the 2022 tier designations. The county’s 2019 median household income was $52,051, landing the county the No. 59 ranking, up from No. 52 with $46,864 (from 2018) in last year’s tier designations.

The only category in which Rowan County did not improve was in adjusted property tax base per capita. Rowan dropped from No. 47 to No. 40 even though its tax base per capita increased from $90,368 to $94,468 in the current fiscal year.

When last year’s rankings were released, local leaders like Crider and Edds said they would use the county’s tier one status to “make lemonade out of lemons” by exploring opportunities to use state incentives to land new employers. Crider said the Rowan EDC mentioned the county’s tier one designation during talks with prospective companies, but that they did not ultimately use any of the available incentives.

“We brought it up all the time, especially because we were the only tier one county in the Charlotte metro region. So, that made us a little bit, potentially more competitive,” Crider said. “The whole lemonade effort brought us a lot of visibility in the marketplace and generated some interest.”

Regardless of where Rowan County sits in the state’s tier rankings, Crider projected a positive outlook for 2022.

“We bounced back,” Crider said. “Based upon the numbers they look at each year, our numbers are going to continue to get stronger as we see more growth and development coming our way. We’ve got an amazing amount of projects in the pipeline right now, so those are going to help us improve on that ranking.”