As regional economies begin to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, Tri-Cities leaders are trying to build a road map to take the area from recovery to growth.
The Port of Kennewick recently commissioned a study through Eastern Washington University to assess the overall impact of the pandemic on the economy and households in the Tri-Cities.
The big takeaway from the study is that the economy of the Tri-Cities was particularly resilient, and likely fared better than much of the state.
The study also says that quick federal funding helped businesses stay afloat and residents make ends meet.
“Although economists might have expected firms, especially small businesses, to be more vulnerable to the economic downturn during the pandemic, surprisingly, bankruptcies during the pandemic actually declined, in part due to federal assistance,” the study read.
“In March 2020, the CARES Act pumped money into the businesses around the U.S., relief checks sent directly to residents of the country, and extended unemployment benefits were handed out to many. All these factors shored up household finances, and as a result, economic stability.”
Port CEO Tim Arntzen hopes that by better understanding what has happened, leaders can better plan for the future.
The worst-hit sectors in the Tri-Cities were hospitality, entertainment and recreation, retail, agriculture and construction. Agricultural work and hospitality work are expected to face challenges throughout 2022.
“It is clear that the most vulnerable jobs over the near-term will be those in customer-facing roles, or more generally service jobs,” the study said.
Latino workers fared the worst in the Tri-Cities, seeing higher than average unemployment claims and not enough wage gains to offset the job losses.
The study suggests that part of the reason for this is because industries with disproportionate numbers of Latino workers either took longer to recover or still have not fully recovered.
The study also highlighted the income disparity between racial groups in the Tri-Cities from 2015-19, calling the range “breathtakingly large.”
The average household income of white and Asian families is almost double that of Latino households and more than triple that of Black households.
Asian households have the highest average annual income at $88,800, with white households at $81,800.
Hispanic and Latino households are averaging $48,110 annually, while Native American/Indigenous and Black households averaged less than $25,000 per year.
The study’s author suggested that in order to continue to help recovery and lessen wage gaps, the Tri-Cities could focus on creating training opportunities for high-demand occupations, such as truck drivers, nursing assistants and sales representatives.
Longer-term strategies would include greater focus on nursing and computer science education.
While there were initially sharp declines in economic activity in 2020, the Tri-Cities economy recovered well, with local government revenues actually increasing during the first two years of the pandemic.
Population growth in the Tri-Cities also remains well ahead of state and national averages.
Benton County’s population is expected to grow by about 20,500 people by 2030, with a 1.3% population growth expected in 2022 and a gradual decline to 1.1% estimated annual growth by 2030.
Franklin County is expected to grow at a faster clip, but will slow down from 2.7% growth this year to 2.3% estimated growth in 2030.
To put that into perspective, the combined growth for Benton and Franklin counties was 1.4% in 2021, which is about double the state and national averages.
The study also said that housing is becoming less affordable in the Tri-Cities, and if the region expects to continue to excel, that must be addressed. Median home resale values have also outpaced household income increases over the past four years, with home values rising by 60%.
One recommendation from the study’s authors was that one of the most important strategy areas that the greater Tri-Cities community must consider is “housing, especially lower- to middle-income market housing.” The study said that while the area has been able to tout more affordable living than other parts of the state, that advantage is already beginning to erode.