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Economist sees slow recovery as jobless top 15%

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Despite the latest figures showing over 15 percent of Georgetown County’s workforce is unemployed, there is hope for the local economy, an economist says.

Retail sales have started to recover after a drop in 2008, and there is the potential for county residents to find work in neighboring areas, said Don Schunk, a research economist at Coastal Carolina University.

“There are some signs of hope. You look at Boeing coming in and you look at large announcements from the upstate,” he said.

While the jobs are not in Georgetown County, residents can still benefit if they work in other counties and bring their checks back to Georgetown, he said, showing a chart that placed Georgetown County residents in jobs as far south as Charleston and as far north and west as Loris, Conway and Florence.

But, he said, “I don’t think we should expect a sharp turn around.”

Manufacturing was a large part of the county and state economy until the early 1990s. The number of manufacturing jobs has continued to fall since 2000.

“It’s tempting to say that it’s just the recession, but there is something larger at play,” he said.

Schunk credits two factors. There is more automation in factories, so parking lots get smaller while the buildings get bigger, he said.

Work is also outsourced.

While it’s easy to look at the decline and say, “just find another business and take manufacturing out,” Schunk said the county’s economy won’t rapidly improve unless manufacturing is part of it. Retail sales and jobs do not make up for those lost positions or the amount of money people with manufacturing jobs put into the local economy.

“Communities across the United States are dealing with this,” he said. “It’s not a ghost town issue.”

Unemployment in January was 15.3 percent, up 2.3 percent from January 2009, according to the S.C. Employment Security Commission. There are now 4,819 people out of work, nearly 1,000 more than a year ago, and 400 more than in December.

Schunk estimates that another 10 percent has stopped looking for jobs, making the effective jobless and under-employed rate closer to 25 percent.

On top of the loss of manufacturing, economic projections encouraged businesses to believe that growth would continue at the same rate through 2010.

Instead, about 270,000 jobs expected to develop did not. Retail sales fell when people cut spending and started saving. As a result, more people lost their jobs, and the cycle continued, Schunk said.

If households continue to save more and spend less over the next 10 years, the economy and job growth will remain slow, Schunk said.

He spoke to local officials this week, outlining the state of the economy and trying to explain how it got there.

To return to the boom of 2004 could take four to six years of steady growth. “I’m not showing you this to scare you. It’s to make the case that we can be growing,” Schunk said.

Population growth could help, but the challenge is attracting jobs, he said.

While he was speaking in Georgetown, the county’s economic development director was in the Seattle area to meet with Boeing and its suppliers.

“Everything’s real confidential right now, but after coming out here and talking with these folks, the future looks really bright,” he said. “It seems like we’re going to be in great shape in Georgetown in the future.”

It won’t happen over night, he said, but he expects to see significant improvement in the county’s unemployment rate in the next two to three years. That’s when suppliers say they’ll be most likely to looking at putting facilities in the Lowcountry to be near the new Boeing plant in North Charleston, and Georgetown County is definitely in the running.

“It’s a great opportunity for our industrial park,” Gregory said.

Officials here said they see opportunity in collaboration.

“I think we all will agree that we’re at a time in our economy that no one here in this room expected,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

“The other thing demonstrated here is that these times are unpredictable, and thirdly, I think what’s been demonstrated here is that economic recovery will be much slower than we thought,” he said.

Hemingway said he has been meeting with his counterparts at the school district, water and sewer district and city of Georgetown for two years, “sharing ideas to see how we can partner to serve Georgetown better.

“We felt it would be beneficial for each of our boards to meet to come together and see how they can benefit in the region and state.”

School Board Member Sarah Elliott said she was pleased to see the cooperation. “We need to do more of these so we can be more open. In these times we certainly need transparency,” she said.

While there wasn’t any discussion of what the entities could do together, they asked questions about how much economic development would make a difference.

Schunk couldn’t give them specific numbers, but said that, “in terms of economic development, you need to be very broad in what you’re trying to do.”

School Board Member Benny Elliott said he didn’t know what they all could do to attract more businesses and growth, but he liked the joint effort.

“I’d like to see more cooperation between all the entities of Georgetown County,” he said. “Maybe we can talk them into giving us some money.”

Jackie R. Broach contributed to this story.

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