At the dawn of a new year and decade, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber hosted its annual Horizons Economic Forecast Breakfast to reflect on the progress of the region and consider how that progress might manifest into the future.
The event, held on the morning of Jan. 15 at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, gathered more than 500 business and community leaders from the South Sound for a series of speakers and panel discussion surrounding the region’s economic forecast.
Eli Taylor, vice president relationship manager for KeyBank, welcomed the crowd and brought Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, to the podium to explain the significance of the event. “The Chamber’s vision is to make the South Sound the best place to do business in Washington state,” Pierson said, adding that events such as this help to encourage collaboration and intentional planning for continued regional growth.
Based on data trends illustrated throughout the program, the South Sound certainly is on a trajectory toward Pierson’s goal. The region’s labor force has experienced steady growth and historically low unemployment rates; personal income is on the rise and forecasted to maintain that incline, resulting in heightened taxable retail sales activity due to increased consumer dollars; housing, though an area of concern for some, maintains relative affordability when compared to King County and prices appear to be rising in accordance with wage gain; and the Export-Import Bank has been renewed for an unprecedented seven years, promising a stable trade sector for top employers like the Port of Tacoma.
Several speakers tackled the importance of trade to the economy, including U.S. Representatives Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer, who each addressed the crowd via video. They spoke to working toward legislation and a political climate in stark support of trade infrastructure. “When you invest in resources that inspire trade, our economy flourishes,” Heck said.
Perhaps most closely affected by this discussion was speaker John McCarthy, commissioner of the Port of Tacoma. “As Pierce County’s gateway to the international economy, the Port is greatly invested in the health and vitality of the region,” McCarthy said.
The Northwest Seaport Alliance, the marine cargo operating partnership between the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, saw a decline of 0.7 percent traffic in 2019, likely due to the tariffs on imports and exports that are expected to continue through 2020.
Dr. Neil Johnson, author of the most recent Pierce County Economic Index Report and principal of Sound Resource Economics, explained that we will likely not see another year of decline in Port activity in 2020, but that it is estimated to remain at relatively stagnant levels. This strain on trade activity is expected to have some reprieve with political decisions like the EXIM Bank renewal, among others.
Another topic closely examined during the event was employment trends. At the close of 2019, employment was very strong with a 3.2 percent gain for the year. The forecast for 2020 is for an additional 3 percent growth, bringing the total number of employed to 439,300 by the end of the year.
During a panel discussion with Joe McInelly, senior project manager at Schuchart; Deborah Howell, vice president of innovation and strategy at Workforce Central; and Scott Jones, senior vice president for Tehaleh by Newland Communities, deliberate growth of the labor force was a topic of emphasis. Howell explained that employers are strained to find skilled workers, and Pierce County needs to invest in resources to bring skill levels up to meet employment need. Jones said that even though many individuals in Pierce County are employed, a sizeable portion are diverting their labor to King County. McInelly added that we’re seeing many additional individuals from King County relocating to Pierce County, but that they may not necessarily be pursuing in-county jobs. Although job growth is steady, the panelists agreed that programs to encourage living and working in Pierce County will make that growth more lucrative for the regional economy.
The event was punctuated by an informative keynote speech from Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“What I’m seeing in the national economy is what I like to refer to as ‘A Tale of Two Economies,’” Bradley said. One tale, he noted, comprises of about 70 percent of the population. This group is benefitting from historically low unemployment, and using their wages to participate in consumer activities. The other 30 percent are “uncertain” — cautious of political decisions and trade disputes that may affect their finances or businesses, and contributing to the signs that economists often deem indicators of an upcoming recession — such as an unwillingness to invest. “The enemy of investment is uncertainty,” Bradley said.
This 30 percent, Bradley said, could swell or calm the rising economic tide. He encouraged attendees that the capability to quell uncertainty and encourage economic growth is within our control. “It is our challenge and opportunity to figure out how to keep the economy growing,” he said. “And I’m confident we’re up to the task.”