Members of the Brownwood Economic Development Corporation board weren’t prepared to declare “What recession?” at their May meeting Tuesday, but they were eager to point to several positive economic indicators.
“It’s unbelievable,” board member Calvin Fryar said. “You lay Brownwood and most of Texas against the economy of some of the other areas of the country, and you can see how fortunate we are.”
Sales tax receipts, while lagging behind the double-digit percentage jumps experienced in recent years, are nevertheless inching upward.
“Sales taxes are up a little,” BEDC Executive Director James Campbell said. “It’s up 2, maybe 3 percent. We’re still ahead of last year, and we’re very much thankful for that. Retail sales seem to be holding their own. Maybe people will get their stimulus check and spend it… I hope they’ll spend it on anything that’s taxable.”
Campbell said statewide, sales tax receipts are also still ahead of last year, but some major cities are showing weakness in that area.
Local industries are faring well overall, Campbell said, along the downturn in the national construction industry is a factor for some, even though that’s a relative bright spot for Texas. The value of the dollar, however, has made the price of products made by firms like 3M Company with strong international markets a bargain.
Perhaps the most positive local economic indicator is found in the employment report.
“Unemployment continues to decline,” Campbell said as he distributed state data reflecting a drop in the Brown County jobless rate from 3.6 to 3.4 percent between March and April. That was accomplished even as the available labor force increased from 18,926 to 18,999.
The number of people employed in Brown County was at a record high in April, at 18,322 up from 18,205 in March. The number of unemployed slipped from 721 to 622.
“I suspect that number reflects the chronically unemployed,” Campbell said. “We have a lot of job openings. The employment situation is very favorable.”
That creates a new set of challenges for economic developers, however.
“People talk about job creation and bringing new industries to town, but you look at the employment figures… and there’s no labor pool,” board member Harry Miller Jr. said.
Campbell said while efforts are under way to supply the skilled workers existing industries require, job development must focus on different fields.
“We have to get away from some of our core industries,” Campbell said. “You’ve got to have people, and TSTC is working to equip them with those skills. And even then, you don’t get to keep all of them. Some of them will go to work somewhere else.”
Campbell said the area reached a “critical mass” of supply and demand for skilled labor “some time ago,” and existing industries are taking on all the skilled labor available.
“If we brought in another industry needing metal fabrication workers or welders, we’d be in trouble,” Campbell said. “The best way to get new labor is to train them, but we’re also trying to diversify.”
Board members praised the efforts of TSTC to equip residents with the skills needed by local industry through its Corporate College.
Brian Kight, associate vice president at TSTC West Texas’ Brownwood Center, said enrollment for nursing and welding classes continues to exceed the spaces available, and that enrollment for the traditional summer semester stands at 241, “up just a hair” from last summer.
Board members also acknowledged the overwhelming approval by Brownwood voters on May 10 of three propositions that will allow sales tax dollars dedicated to economic development to support a municipal parks project including a swimming pool, relocation of the senior citizens center and ball fields.
“Work is already under way, although the projects themselves will take some time to complete,” Campbell said. “This is a $6 million commitment over several years I think it’s going to be a valuable endeavor for the community. The voters of Brownwood thought so. It’s their dollars we’re going to be using, so we’re very proud to be a part of this.”
Campbell reminded the board that the vote only makes the sales tax money eligible for such use, and that the BEDC board determines specifically how the dollars are used.
Here are April’s employment figures for Brown and area counties:
BROWN — 3.6 percent unemployed (down from 3.8 percent in March), 18,999 labor force, 18,322 employed, 677 unemployed.
CALLAHAN — 2.9 percent unemployed (down from 3.2 percent in March), 7,063 labor force, 6,860 employed, 203 unemployed.
COLEMAN — 3.3 percent unemployed (down from 3.5 percent in March), 4,513 labor force, 4,366 employed, 147 unemployed.
COMANCHE — 3.2 percent unemployed (down from 3.5 percent in March), 6,462 labor force, 6,254 employed, 208 unemployed.
EASTLAND — 3.8 percent unemployed (down from 4.1 percent in March), 8,152 labor force, 7,846 employed, 306 unemployed.
McCULLOCH — 3.3 percent unemployed (down from 3.8 percent in March), 3,870 labor force, 3,744 employed, 126 unemployed.
MILLS — 3.3 percent unemployed (down from 3.7 percent in March), 2,216 labor force, 2,142 employed, 74 unemployed.
SAN SABA — 4.8 percent unemployed (down from 5.1 percent in March), 2,269 labor force, 2,161 employed, 108 unemployed.