Home building activity is up and unemployment is down from a year ago but Mecklenburg County begins 2013 with much more work to do, economists say.
More homes are selling, and for higher prices. The area is adding jobs more than 22,500 in the Charlotte-area alone between November 2011 and November 2012, according to state data.
The problem, says UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton, is that local growth lags the rest of the country.
Thats not good, he said, speaking about how Mecklenburg Countys 9 percent jobless rate in November is higher than the nations 7.8 percent unemployment rate.
Among the trouble spots: commercial real estate development remains way off the peak in the mid-2000s. And foreclosure filings for the county rose in November to 705, up from 496 the same time a year earlier.
Federal Reserve economist Rick Kaglic sees the local economy this way: A very slow, unsatisfying economic recovery thats likely to be slow, sluggish, disappointing in the first half of 2013 as well.
Making matters worse: Continued uncertainty over how Congress will respond to pressing fiscal issues around spending and borrowing. Thats preventing companies from hiring and buying new equipment and real estate so they can expand, Kaglic said.
A local restaurateur, for example, told Kaglic that while his sales are up annually, his December profits fell compared to 2011. The reason, the restaurant owner said, is customers were worried about how their taxes, and take home pay, may change.
We need to be realists
Many economists say the worst is behind us. Real estate agents largely believe the Charlotte-area housing market has bottomed, for example. The one word I would use to describe Charlotte in 2012 is normalizing, in the sense that Charlottes recovery has become more typical of what we have seen in the past, said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo & Co. Looking ahead to 2013, we expect Charlottes economic recovery will strengthen further and broaden... I would say that I expect the economy to be re-energized.
But Connaughton says the persistently lackluster growth should serve as a wake-up call to Charlottes traditionally optimistic leaders. He said local leaders must figure out new ways of recruiting business. He also believes incoming Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his administration must reform state income and sales taxes to make North Carolina, and Charlotte, more competitive for relocating companies.
The U.S. added jobs in December, about 155,000, according to a report released Friday. The increase kept pace with population growth but was not enough to improve the jobless rate.
North Carolinas jobless rate stood at 9 percent, the same as Mecklenburg Countys and the fifth worst in the U.S.
We need to be realists, Connaughton said of Charlotte-area leaders. We need to recognize this great brand, this great environment of growth that is talked about, no longer exists. The bloom is off the bouquet.
Charlotte Chamber president Bob Morgan says the Charlotte area has added jobs, including attracting five Chinese companies last year.
He agrees growth has been slow but said when the nation picks up, I have no doubt that Charlottes growth will certainly match, and most likely exceed, that of the national economy.
A spokesman for Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said the mayor is committed to putting Charlotteans back to work and will continue to work with public and private sector leaders to create the best environment possible for businesses to create jobs in Charlotte.
Among initiatives the mayor has supported, the spokesman said: working to create a public-private fund to seed innovation and support entrepreneurs, and overhauling the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Workforce Development Board to expand services for job seekers and employers.
Still seeking work
Jeffrey Bager been out of work since 2009. An accountant who worked in the commercial real estate industry in Florida, Bager relocated to Charlotte this summer to move in with his younger brother.
Ive always had work. This is just a shocker for me, said Bager, 47, who said he started working within three days of graduating from college in the 1980s.
An accountant by training, Bager worked in real estate construction, development and property management and was involved in projects ranging from strip malls to apartments to senior living campuses.
Charlottes commercial real estate market has mostly stagnated in the last year, excluding the multifamily industry. Investors have flocked locally to build apartments, believing increased demand from young professionals or those locked out of the for-sale housing market will boost occupancy and rents. Otherwise, commercial building permits dropped in November compared to the previous year.
Bager said he prides himself on being self-sufficient. Now, he relies on his brother to support him while he continues his hunt and keeps his skills fresh.
Ive really had a difficult time. But Im going to treat (the job hunt) like our pioneers did when they explored the west, he said. Unchartered waters and undiscovered country. They never knew what was over the next cliff.
Peggy Harper, a geographer in Charlotte, has been hunting for work for about two years after being laid off when her employer moved her division to California. With more than 20 years of experience as a marketing specialist in the health and human services industry, Harper says employers tell her shes overqualified for available positions. She is no longer eligible for unemployment benefits and is not included in the state and county job statistics, she says.
To get by, Harper says she grabs whatever work she can find, teaching an occasional geography course at a local university and working part-time at Belk during the holidays. She and some family members design and sew crafts that they sell at fairs.
Harper says she is optimistic about 2013.
Im exhausted. Its very stressful, she said. But I am going to try to use all my skills to get any kind of work.
In addition to the housing market, the manufacturing sector may offer some hope.
The industry added 1,000 jobs in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill metropolitan area between November 2011 and November 2012. Its smaller than other industries, such as trade, transportation and utilities, which added 5,900 jobs during the same time.
But as a highly cyclical industry, manufacturing tends to be on the front edge of increased economic activity and could be a sign of good things to come, said the Feds Kaglic.
Manufacturing activity hit a sluggish patch toward the end of 2012, Kaglic said. But I hear its picking up.