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Jan. 21, 2022

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Data paints picture of how Clark County’s economy is faring

Virus, government spending to determine health of economy

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
Published:

In January 2020, The Hilton Vancouver Convention Center held an annual event that forecasted the year ahead.

Hosted by The Columbian and attended by 475 people, the Economic Forecast Breakfast could not have predicted an economic collapse arguably worse than the Great Recession of 2008 and a pandemic that killed more Americans than World War II.

In its 35-year history, last year’s forecast was likely the most unpredictable.

This year, The Columbian is pressing on with its traditional economic forecast event, scrapping the breakfast and going all-digital and free.

The Columbian is also releasing some of its collected data that shows how disruptive the pandemic has been to the region’s economy.

Some factors, such as the average rent for an apartment and the number of utility customers, haven’t shown any change; they’re going up at about the same rate. But other factors were either accelerated or reversed from a five-year trend, and the pandemic is an obvious culprit.

If you go

What: The 2021 Clark County Economic Forecast event

When: 10 a.m. Tuesday

Where: Register at columbian.com/economic-forecast.

Cost: Free

Among the factors that accelerated in Clark County are decreasing car registrations, decreasing hotel room occupancy rates, and the most detrimental: average monthly unemployment insurance claims, which almost quadrupled in 2020 compared with 2019.

The pandemic also reversed some trends stretching at least five years, but it doesn’t mean they won’t bounce back just as fast. It’s most obvious in the hospitality industry, which includes hotels and restaurants.

One economic factor that hasn’t seen a pandemic-based shift is rent, which continues to rise. In 2020, the average rent for a two-bedroom one-bathroom apartment in Clark County was $1,310.75, up 31.5 percent from 2015.

“Given that a third of the county rents, what happens to rents affects a lot of people,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist for Southwest Washington.

Moratoriums on rental evictions will end in March but could be extended. Landlords’ collective behavior isn’t obvious, and ultimately, it’s too soon to tell what will happen to rents, Bailey said.

Utility customers are on the rise, as was the case before the pandemic. It’s a good indicator that Clark County’s population is still growing at the same rate as before.

Hotels

Two factors show that hotels are bouncing back, but they’re charging less money to get their rooms filled again.

One of those factors is average room prices, which were steadily increasing from 2015 to early 2020. The prices of rooms tend to be lower at the beginning of the year, peak in the summer and then fall off again.

In 2019 in Clark County, the average room rate in January was $100.92. That increased to a peak in August of $128.98 and then fell to $97.85 in December.

This year started off similar to 2020, with the average room rate being only 38 cents less in January. But the pandemic hit, and in August, the rate reversed course and fell to $95.41. However, compared with 2019, prices recovered to a December rate of $82.56 — down about 15 percent.

Hotel occupancy rates plummeted last year. Rates were falling in 2019, likely due to an influx of new hotels. In 2019, the occupancy rate fell by about 4.3 percent. But in 2020, the rate fell by 25 percent.

Bailey said the future of any of the economic factors will depend on the severity of the virus, which has new and more contagious strains branching into society. Government support is the other large factor: will another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans be made available to struggling businesses? Will unemployment insurance continue to support residents? Will jobs come back?

The Columbian’s Economic Forecast virtual event will attempt to answer some of these questions with industry expert panelists:

  • Chris Green, assistant director for the Washington State Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness. Green will give insights into the state’s efforts to help the economy.
  • Pauline Fong, program director for the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust. Fong will give an update on nonprofits dealing with new challenges during the pandemic.
  • Scott Bailey, regional economist, Washington State Employment Security Department. Bailey will give an overview of the trends he’s seeing in the county that will likely continue in 2021

Registration, 10 stories from various business leaders in Vancouver looking forward to the coming year and the option to submit a question to presenters  are available at columbian.com/economic-forecast.

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