Area unemployment lingers as economy ticks up |

Area unemployment lingers as economy ticks up

ASPEN – The approach of Labor Day this weekend is not bringing a lot of good news for the work forces of Pitkin County and its neighbors.

Unemployment in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties remains at more than double the rate of the last pre-recession summer in 2008, even though the recent regional economy has shown more signs of life than any time since the downturn – proven by a recent increase in sales in the real estate industry and year-over-year improvements in retail sales.

Pitkin County’s unemployment rate was 6.7 percent in July, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The unemployment rate for Pitkin County has been consistent for two years: It was 6.8 percent in July 2010 and 6.5 percent in July 2009, according to labor department records. In contrast, the unemployment rate for the county was only 2.9 percent in July 2008, before the recession really walloped the country.

Pitkin County’s 10-year average annual unemployment rate for 2001 through 2010 was 4.6 percent, so it remains well above average.

Nationally, the Bureau of Labor reported that the unemployment rate for July 2011 was 9.1 percent. August statistics are due out Friday.

The trends are similar for Garfield County and Eagle County.

In Garfield County there were 2,869 unemployed workers in July out of a work force of 35,169, for an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent. Garfield County’s rate was 9.4 percent in July 2010 and 8.3 percent for the month in 2009. In contrast, only 3 percent of the work force was unemployed in July 2008.

Garfield County’s 10-year annual average unemployment rate is 4.7 percent.

In Eagle County, there were 2,451 unemployed workers out of 30,472 in the work force in July, the labor department’s statistics show. That’s an unemployment rate of 8 percent – similar to 9 percent for the same month last year and 8 percent in July 2009.

Pre-recession, Eagle County’s July unemployment was only 3.3 percent in 2008.

Eagle County’s 10-year annual average for unemployment is 4.8 percent.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin assessed the economy there as “a whole lot better” than in many areas of the state and country, but still not healthy: “It will be a long time before we fully recover, but we can’t give up,” he said.

The recession and hangover hit the Garfield County construction industry particularly hard. Subcontractors working in the gas fields saw work dry up when production fell. “There is a little bit of construction, although it’s not much,” Martin said.

Subcontractors such as water haulers and road builders for well pads are seeing their activity pick up, an indicator that the oil and gas industry anticipates increased activity, according to Martin. Oil and gas production has showed a modest increase in Garfield County in recent months despite lower prices, he said.

In Eagle County, the collapse of new home construction decimated the building industry. “The construction trade is as bad as it was,” said Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County, a nonprofit organization that tracks the economy of the county and works to strengthen it.

The tourism sector of the economy in Vail and Beaver Creek has experienced “an OK summer,” Cohen said. “Nobody is saying it’s on fire by any stretch.”

The economic council helped assemble a financial advisory board for a recent discussion of the economy with the county finance director. The consensus of that board was that there won’t be dramatic growth in the Eagle County economy anytime soon, thus there is little hope for job growth, Cohen said.

It’s been difficult for business and civic leaders, as well as elected officials, to adjust to the economic difficulties of today after a generally healthy and growing economy since the early 1980s, Cohen noted. “After two decades of grow, grow, grow it’s gone to slow, slow, slow,” he said.

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