Recession tougher on valley than state as a whole

Scott Condon
Aspen Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado – The Roaring Fork Valley has been hit considerably harder by the recession than Colorado as a whole, based on the number of jobs lost, according to a recent report by the state.

Pitkin County had 2,092 fewer jobs in the third quarter of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008, according to the report by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That equates to a dip of 12 percent.

The report examined the average employment in each county during the third-quarter months of July, August and September.

The recession was even tougher on Garfield County, which shed 4,604 jobs between the third quarter of 2008 and the same period of 2009. That was a decline of 15.5 percent.

“Everybody’s in a panic mode because there are no jobs,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin.

Eagle County, which includes El Jebel and part of Basalt, saw jobs drop 13 percent. It lost 4,268 positions between the summers of 2008 and 2009.

“Our anecdotal take is we’re not quite done shedding jobs in Eagle County,” said Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County.

The three counties combined lost just shy of 11,000 jobs between the third quarters of 2008 and 2009 – or about 14 percent.

Colorado as a whole employed 6 percent fewer workers over the same period, according to quarterly census of employment and wages.

Colorado’s mountain-resort counties typically bounce back quicker from recessions than the state as a whole, said Joe Winter, senior economist with the state labor department. That might not hold true this time. There is no immediate turnaround in sight for the energy development business in western Garfield County, Winter said.

Tourism in the resort areas remained lackluster this winter. Second-home development has stalled.

“Construction has lost an amazing number of jobs in the last two years,” Winter said.

The Roaring Fork Valley feels the pain. Cohen said construction is the “sweet spot” of Eagle County’s economy. It’s definitely gone sour.

The number of people employed in construction in Eagle County fell from an average of 5,314 in the third quarter of 2008 to an average of 3,668 during the same months in 2009.

Cohen said the number of building permits issued is down so significantly that a quick recovery appears impossible.

“The bite is really taking hold more in 2010 than 2009,” he said.

He envisions construction workers becoming migratory out of necessity. For many, it’s a case of “reinvent or relocate,” he said.

Construction-related businesses in Pitkin County reduced their workforce from 1,338 in third quarter 2008 to 1,056 in 2009.

Garfield County construction has suffered a double-whammy. Home construction has virtually stopped. The natural gas boom is a memory, so construction firms aren’t landing associated work, like road construction and pad development. Martin estimated that 35 percent of Garfield County’s construction industry was dependent on energy development.

The number of workers nose-dived in Garfield County’s “mining” category – which includes workers in gas fields as well as those at gravel pits that supply materials for the industry. There were 2,797 employed in summer 2008 and only 1,571 last summer, the latest statistics available.

The loss of construction activity has a ripple effect throughout the entire Garfield County economy. Fewer people are shopping in grocery stores, dining out or requiring various services, Martin said. That, in turn, forces layoffs among businesses in those sectors.

Martin said the county’s unemployment rate soared from 1.8 to the current 8 percent in about one year. That doesn’t reflect the number of underemployed workers holding out hope for better days.

“What this amounts to is everybody’s waiting,” Martin said.

Construction workers obviously aren’t the only ones feeling the recession’s sting. The number of retail workers in Pitkin County fell from an average of 1,556 during the summer months of 2008 to 1,312 last summer.

The hotel and restaurant industries shed about 250 jobs over the same period, from 4,024 in summer 2008 to 3,772 last summer.

Eagle County’s numbers, which dwarf those of Pitkin County, fell even harder. Retail positions fell from 3,381 to 2,988 comparing summer 2008 to 2009.

Hotels and restaurants pared 900 workers, from 7,253 to 6,346, according to the state report.

Garfield County lost about 320 hotel and restaurant jobs, and about 550 retail positions.

“Accommodations and food service has been rocked statewide,” Winter said.

The economist said it is difficult for people to imagine an end to the recession right now because conditions are so tough. But just three years ago there was such a severe labor shortage that some businesses were forced to close for lack of reliable, affordable help, he noted.

“People tend to think in the direction they’re going,” Winter said.

Once the recovery occurs, will the Roaring Fork Valley and Eagle Valley slide back into the boom-bust cycle? Cohen said there is talk in the Eagle Valley about a need to replace the high-paying construction jobs, preferably by diversifying. Destination medical care and fitness is one possibility being explored, he said.

Martin said the United States needs to plot how to build more of its own things and grow more of its own things to create a more dependable, sustainable economy. That starts by having each community chart its course on how to survive, then work regionally, then as a state, he said.

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