- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

ANNISTON, Ala. (AP) - Compared to all other metro areas in Alabama, Calhoun County has recovered fewer jobs since the Great Recession hit, but recent signs suggest increased local economic gains are ahead.

A report presented Wednesday at the annual Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce Economic Forum shows county employment at the end of 2013 was down around 10 percent from six years before, just before the recession hit - the poorest performance among the state’s 11 metro areas.

Some business and economic experts say the declining defense industry, which has a strong presence in the area, is the main reason for the slower recovery.

However, the report also indicates 2013 had growth in average wages and work hours of local workers for the first time in years, signs that job gains could be on the horizon. Meanwhile, recent expansions of several local companies and planned developments at McClellan also signify increased economic growth for the county, some experts say.

According to the report, from January 2007 to the worst of the recession in January 2010, the number of county residents with jobs decreased 12.84 percent, the biggest drop among the 11 state metro areas. Huntsville had the smallest job losses at 4.26 percent during that period.

Also, from that lowest recession point to December 2013, the county’s employment has recovered 3.23 percent, the weakest gain among the state metro areas. The Auburn-Opelika metro area showed the greatest job gains at 13.63 percent.

The Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville Metropolitan Statistical Area, defined by the federal government, includes all of Calhoun County.

“This is ugly for us,” said Mark Hearn, professor of management and marketing at Jacksonville State University, who helped compile the report.

Hearn said the high concentration of the defense industry in the area is the main reason for the county’s slow recovery. The Anniston Army Depot, the largest single employer in the county, has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years due to the end of the Iraq War and drawdown of the Afghanistan War. The end of chemical weapons destruction at the incinerator at the depot in 2011 resulted in the loss of hundreds more jobs.

“During the time when other metros were seeing growth, we were seeing more cutbacks,” Hearn said, referring to the defense industry.

Ahmad Ijaz, director of economic forecasting at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, agreed that cuts in defense spending have hurt the area in terms of not just jobs but also the housing market.

“Defense cutbacks in general have impacts on home construction,” Ijaz said. “When you have a chance of losing your job, you’re not going to be buying a house.”

Everett King of ERA King Real Estate in Anniston said the local housing market, like the job market, has also recovered slower in recent years compared to other metro areas. King said fewer jobs or just more low-paying temporary jobs means fewer homes sold, which in turn means fewer jobs for people to build and sell those homes.

“If you can’t buy a house, that’s a big problem all over,” King said.

Keivan Deravi, economist at Auburn University Montgomery, said the area needs a driver to get the local economy moving.

“Manufacturing has peaked and will not grow much more, at least not at an accelerated rate; housing is still stagnant and the military is seeing more cuts … there is just no hook to encourage growth,” Deravi said. “You need a pretty big influx of people or an influx of high income earners.”

Deravi noted that while the county is struggling economically, other metro areas and the state as a whole have also not fully recovered from the recession.

Still, the report shows some signs the county might see better job growth in the coming year. The report shows average hours worked per week among local private industry increased 6.34 percent in the past year, compared to several recent years of decreases. Also, average hourly earnings among local private industry rose 11.24 percent last year, compared to a steady decline in the last five years.

Hearn said such improvements suggest more job hires could soon be on the way.

“It makes sense that before you hire more people, you work the people you’ve got more hours … you get to the point where it’s not economical to keep working them longer hours because of overtime costs,” Hearn said. “And local companies seeing revenue picking up and in turn sharing that with employees suggests an uptick in local business.”

Recent local industry expansions also indicate increased economic activity. International Auto Components at McClellan announced in January an expansion that will create around 200 jobs. Shelco Foundries, which manufactures engine parts, also announced in January an expansion that will create more than 100 jobs.

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