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Asheville remains bright spot in WNC Economic Index

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7/17/2012 - Asheville remains bright spot in WNC Economic Index
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

BOONE -- Western North Carolina's economy got a slight bump upward in May, reversing three straight months of decline, Appalachian State University researchers said Monday.

The Asheville area, with relatively lower unemployment, remained the bright spot in the region, which is experiencing a slow, uneven recovery.

The WNC Economic Index, which measures the size of the labor force, unemployment, productivity and economic activity across 25 western counties, rose by 0.04 to 101.8 -- the same level the index reached in November 2011, according to Todd Cherry, director of the Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis at ASU.

"It seems that the economy continues on a bumpy ride -- two steps forward, one step back," Cherry said. "But the positive move breaks what was becoming a negative trend.

There were 547,712 workers drawing paychecks around the region in May, about 0.01 percent fewer than 547,899 in April.

"Intuitively, an increase in the index with flat employment would imply workers are a bit more productive," Cherry said.

The region's low mark for the labor force was 531,201 workers in October 2009 in the depths of the Great Recession.

Joblessness in the region's rural counties increased by 0.2 points to 11.1 percent in May. But in the Asheville metro area, which covers Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties, unemployment also rose 0.02 percent to 7.6 percent in May, below the state average of 9.4 percent and the national rate of 8.2 percent for that month.

The index also includes the harder-hit Hickory-Morganton-Lenoir metro area, where unemployment was running at 10.9 percent in May.

The slight increase in the index despite upticks in unemployment and few jobs being added across the region makes it difficult to see a trend from May's results, Cherry said.

The monthly index reached 102.1 in December, following five months of consistent increases in the fall and winter of 2011. At its bottom, the index dipped to 94.3 in June 2009.

Scott Hamilton, CEO of AdvantageWest regional economic development agency, which is a sponsor of the monthly index, sees better days ahead based on recent new job and expansion announcements.

"I think in manufacturing, especially, we'll expect over 1,000 jobs in the next 18-24 months," he said. Many of those companies like Elkamet in Flat Rock and Sierra Nevada, Legacy Paddlesports and Continental Teves in Fletcher are starting to hire more workers.

This year, the staff of economic developers are seeing a marked increase in inquiries from companies looking to expand or relocate. "We've got good things moving ahead," Hamilton said.

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