Snohomish County’s recovery called a work in progress by regional economist

MUKILTEO — The economy in the Pacific Northwest, and Snohomish County in particular, is getting better, regional economist Michael Parks observes, but there’s still a long way to go before a full recovery and a robust economy.

More than 240 turned out Wednesday for Economic Alliance Snohomish County’s annual economic outlook conference at Paine Field’s Future of Flight Center. Keynote speaker Parks, editor emeritus of Marple’s Northwest Business Letter, said that only a few weeks ago, people “were wondering if we were heading for a double dip,” a repeat slump in before a real recovery.

“Now, fourth-quarter figures are getting more positive, with annual economic growth revised to a rate of 3 percent nationally,” he said. “We’re seeing increased consumer and construction spending. Consumer confidence data released Feb. 28 show unemployment is still high, but the numbers are the lowest since August 2008.”

On the other hand, there linger reminders that everything is not back to normal, he said, noting that the housing-price index is “still a long way from robust” — and that construction of 700,000 homes nationwide is far below a peak of 2 million per year. “Following the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we are seeing improvements, but we remain in extraordinary times,” Parks said.

The state and Puget Sound economies should do better than the rest of the nation for the foreseeable future, he said, noting that “it’s hard to overstate the importance of the early contract settlement between Boeing and the Machinists union.” In aerospace, payrolls have seen a 13 percent gain over the employment level in early 2010.

Oil prices of more than $100 a barrel will continue to encourage more aircraft purchases from Boeing because many airplanes in service “were not designed or built to be efficient at today’s higher fuel prices.”

The state and Snohomish County economies are also being strengthened by the agricultural sector and diversified businesses such as Microsoft, Costco and others, Parks said.

Economic Alliance Snohomish County CEO Troy McClelland told the crowd that the economy is being helped by job growth in a variety of important sectors. Aerospace, life sciences and electronics manufacturing have added 6,232 jobs over the past five years, which in turn created 11,262 indirect “spin-off” jobs. In all, Snohomish County payrolls grew by $776.9 million.

The closing session was a review of the local economy by five speakers: Matt Yerbic, president of Aviation Technical Services; Preston Simmons, chief operating officer of Providence Regional Medical Center; Jeff Green, managing partner of Moss Adams; Gary Shaver, president of Silicon Energy; and Britt Slone, principal at Foushee Construction.

In a discussion moderated by Herald Editorial Editor Bob Bolerjack, the panel predicted a robust year for solar panels and growing demand for business loans, but reticence among bankers to lend money in an uncertain economy. Credit unions will step up lending. There will be expansion in the high-tech, health-care and distribution sectors. There will be more collaboration among health-care providers. And there will continue to be an urgent need for more education and training for future workers in construction, aerospace and technology, panel members said.

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