ST. GEORGE — Another year of steady and sustainable growth is forecast for Washington County’s economy in 2016, according to data shared at the “What’s Up Down South Economic Summit” at the Dixie Center St. George Thursday.
The previous year was recapped, projections were made and some upcoming projects that will add to the economy were showcased at the summit.
“This is a great summit,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said. “Washington County is a great place to do business and it’s a great place to live.”
A particular item Iverson mentioned that will have an impact on the local economy in the long run is the new campus of the Dixie Applied Technology College. The groundbreaking for the school took place later in the day at the location of the old St. George Municipal Airport at the Ridge Top Complex atop the Black Hill.
DXATC’s new 30-acre campus is anticipated to be the anchor of a new technology-focused business park built on the mesa overlooking downtown St. George.
The groundbreaking, which summit attendees were invited to attend, was part of a focus on tech-based businesses and jobs at the economic summit.
“There are so many things going on,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said. In addition to the new DXATC campus, other businesses and institutions are either slated to move into the county or expand.
“The first thing is … the former Blue Bunny building has been sold,” Pike said, “and that’s good news.”
Officials at the summit said the building’s new owners will be using the 160,000-square-foot facility for a purpose similar to its old use, which was an ice cream plant. The Blue Bunny ice cream plant in St. George closed in late 2014. New operations at the facility are anticipated to employ more than 100 people.
“We’re going to hear how (Dixie Regional Medical Center) is planning an expansion of 400,000 square feet,” Pike said. “It’s a huge economic impact on our area. Not just for construction, of course, but the opportunities that brings.”
The medical center’s expansion at its River Road campus is projected to cost $220 million, with an additional $80 million for a new cancer center. The project will break ground in June, with completion anticipated in 2018.
Another expansion in St. George the mayor mentioned was Ram Company.
The company manufactures parts for the aerospace industry and has also supplied parts for space programs. Currently 80 percent of Ram’s production is devoted to the aerospace industry. The company intends to add 139 new jobs over the next eight years.
Other items of note mentioned at the economic summit were the seven solar projects in Southern Utah, which have already created 900 construction jobs. Four of the projects — three in the area of Cedar City and one in Newcastle — began construction in September 2015 and are scheduled to be finished by September 2016. They are expected to create up to 1,000 construction jobs. The solar projects will supply power to 150,000 households.
“As you can see, we have a lot of exciting things that will start this year that will help our economy,” Ed Bowler of Southern Utah Title said.
Economic recap and outlook for Washington County
For many years, Lecia Langston, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, has given an economic recap of the previous year while also providing some projections and potential cautions for the coming year at the economic summit.
“I’ve been doing this a long time — almost 20 years,” Langston said. “It’s hard to keep it fresh. I really hate to be boring. … Not only am I looking at the same (economic) indicators, I’m sad, no, I’m happy to tell you that the indicators have not changed from last year.”
During the 2015 summit, Langston said the economy was in a good place with steady, sustainable growth taking place. It’s where the county wants to be as it lacks signs associated with the bloated growth that can precede a potential recession.
As with job growth in 2014, in 2015 it remained around 5 percent, and has been that way for more than three years. Job growth in Utah hovered around 4 percent, while the national average appeared to have peaked in early 2015 at around 2.5 percent.
“It’s sustainable, reliable growth,” Langston said.
Between September 2014 and September 2015, Washington County was in 9th place in job growth in the state, a place Langston is quite comfortable with, she said.
“It’s not overheated,” she said. “It’s where we want to be.”
Most industries in the county are showing moderate to strong growth, with the majority of jobs being created in the private sector in the health, education and social services industries.
Last year, Langston said higher wages were to be anticipated as the economy became better and employees demanded more competitive wages. Wages in the county went up around 3 percent in 2014, and 3.3 percent during the third quarter of 2015.
Unemployment in the county has been around 4 percent, and no major layoffs took place last year. Unemployment insurance claims were also down last year.
“Another good sign the economy is healthy again,” Langton said.
Population-wise, the growth rate in 2014 was around 3 percent. Langston said she wondered if 3 percent growth is a new normal for the county.
In construction, Langston said, the county issued 1,400 building permits for dwelling units in 2014, with an estimate of 1,500 permits made for 2015. Homes in the county also remain affordable, she said.
So far, projections show no slowdown in the economy, Langston said.
“Even though there’s nothing in the data, it’s important to watch where we are now,” Langston said.
The economy overall has been in an expansion period for the last 79 months. The last expansion prior to the recession lasted 120 months.
“The longer you’ve been in an expansion, the more likelihood there is we’re going to hit the other end of the business cycle,” Langston said.
However, there’s nothing out there yet that has the R-word (recession) on it, she said, but still cautioned summit attendees to keep an eye on economic indicators for potential issues.
The best way to do that, she said, is to visit the Utah Department of Workforce Services website. The website supplies monthly data, economic snapshots and other information.
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