As we roll into the end of 2019 and prepare for 2020, we at GJEP are taking a hard look at what we did this year. We’re evaluating what’s working and what needs to change. There were many successes, but there are still gaps that we need to fill. The world is changing so quickly these days and we need to evolve as an organization to keep up with it and provide the best service to the community that we can.
We measure our success by a number of metrics and we track a lot of data. Numbers by themselves don’t tell the whole story, but the numbers do create a map that help us to better understand if our efforts are paying off or if we need to make changes (either within our organization or make recommendations at the municipal level to encourage different types of growth).
Over the past few years, our economy has had solid, positive growth, but there are still a lot of people worried about a slow down or a recession. Because of that, we’ve decided to use this column to track some of those data points each month in an effort to explain what’s happening in our local economy and how it relates to the rest of Colorado and the nation. Understanding the numbers and what they mean will help everybody to better understand current efforts across the valley, future ballot measures and what ultimately drives our efforts at GJEP.
We’ve published a new chart of numbers on this page and while we’ll continue to tweak it as we get feedback from readers, but this is a good start to explain what’s happening all around us and how it’s all related.
Average annual wage is probably the most important number we track. When I research other communities, I usually first look up their average annual wage because it tells us a lot about a place. Today in Mesa County, our average annual wage is $44,584, up 4.4% from this time last year. The fact that this number continues to climb is what we consider the best indicator of a growing and diversified economy. We believe that all of our problems, including the 49% of kids on free or reduced lunch are directly related to an average annual wage that is too low. Our wages are growing and in direct correlation, the number of kids on free or reduced lunch, while still too high, is declining. We expect this to continue into 2020.
Unemployment just hit an historic low for Mesa County of 2.5%, which sounds great! Most people have a job! However, it also means our local businesses are having a difficult time finding talent and there exists a lot of competition for high quality employees. Our local companies are growing and adding jobs- especially in healthcare, construction and manufacturing- and its not always easy to fill those vacancies and support the growth that the economy is driving. At the same time, our workforce is growing. Today, the number of people in our workforce is 78,379, up 3.2% over last year. What that means is that we’re currently importing our workforce from out of town. Local companies are filling jobs with candidates who are relocating to the area. Job growth is driving our population growth.
GDP, or gross domestic product, is the measure of all of the goods and services produced in our county. We primarily use this number to measure how we’re doing in relation to the rest of the state and right now, we’re looking pretty solid. We have the 10th strongest GDP in the state and the strongest of any county outside of the Denver Metro area. The nine front range counties that make up Denver account for 86% of the state’s total GDP, which is significant. Those counties also continue to have the highest growth in population, wages and housing prices. Tenth is a good place to be, especially since we are the only metropolitan area in Colorado not located on the I25 corridor.
The cost of living index is a measure of what we pay for goods in Mesa County- things like housing, food, clothing and other everyday items- compared to other areas of the country. A measure of 100 is the average. Today our cost of living index in Mesa County is just below the average at 99.1, meaning it is slightly more affordable here than other parts of the country. Keep in mind that Colorado has a higher cost of living index than many other parts of the country, which will inflate ours as well. We’re affordable compared to other parts of Colorado, but more expensive than places we sometimes compete with such as the southern states and parts of the Midwest.
So what does it all mean? Our economic growth is steady, manageable and diversified. There are still too many families living below the poverty level. Those that make the average annual wage cannot afford an average priced home unless they are a dual income household. There is significant income disparity across the region. However, the growth that we’re seeing in manufacturing, technology, construction and healthcare are good paying jobs with benefits that we hope will move more people into the middle class where they can afford the goods and services available in Mesa County. Affordable housing is not necessarily a significant problem today, but if we don’t keep growing a diversified inventory of housing, it could become a problem like so many other places in the state.
We hope you’ll stay tuned over the next year as we continue to track our economic indicators.
This column was originally published in The Daily Sentinel on Sunday, November 17.