The Times West Virginian

November 17, 2013

‘Good news’ in economic forecasts for Morgantown area, state

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — The economic forecasts for the Morgantown area and West Virginia include “a lot of good news.”

The West Virginia University College of Business and Economics’ Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) recently published its 2014 Morgantown Metropolitan Statistical Area Economic Outlook. The report was released during the annual Morgantown MSA Economic Outlook Conference, held in Morgantown on Nov. 12.

During the recent event, John Deskins, director of the BBER, gave a presentation about the forecasts for the Morgantown MSA as well as for West Virginia. The BBER released its West Virginia Economic Outlook, an extensive publication for the state overall, on Oct. 1 during an event in Charleston.

“Our mission is to provide data and analysis that makes it easier for business leaders and government leaders to make decisions and to plan,” he said.

Anybody in business or government in the state needs to know the status of the economy and the direction it is headed, and this information is also of interest and valuable to any members of the public, Deskins said.

He said via phone that the economy of the Morgantown MSA, which includes Monongalia and Preston counties, is very strong and its numbers look really positive. Its growth continues to surpass the state and nation.

“It is without a doubt one of the strongest parts of our state’s economy,” Deskins said of the Morgantown MSA.

The area almost missed the recent economic downturn, which was the worst recession nationally since the 1930s, he said. In the Morgantown MSA, employment barely fell, and about 5,000 jobs were added over the last five years. The two counties saw broad recovery and job growth in virtually every sector of the economy.

The Morgantown MSA is also fortunate to have low unemployment, with a rate that is 3 percent below the national average, Deskins said.

He said health and government, with the presence of WVU and the area hospitals, have driven the economic growth in the area. In fact, these two sectors — government plus education and health services — make up 46 percent of the local employment, which is a big reason for this stability.

“We expect our trend to continue,” Deskins said. “We expect continued stable growth.”

Overall, the state added 3,000 jobs from the middle of last year to the middle of this year, which is a positive sign, he said. The natural gas boom was a big contributor to the overall job growth, with the sector adding 2,000 of those jobs.

West Virginia’s unemployment rate is 1 percentage point below the nation, and its real GDP growth and per capita personal income growth have outpaced the nation over the last few years, Deskins said.

He said the BBER is forecasting an employment growth rate of 1.9 percent annually over the next five years for the Morgantown MSA, and 1 percent job growth per year for the state.

In Morgantown, the biggest increase in employment should happen in the construction industry, with 3.4 percent annual growth expected due to the major projects that have already started. Natural gas production has boomed in the state over the past few years, but the BBER believes natural gas employment should start to level off, Deskins said.

He said most of the job growth in West Virginia should come from professional and business services, which is very much in line with the national trend, and construction. In addition, education and health services will be important in terms of future growth in employment.

The state has had very slow population growth in recent years, and is expected to experience a slight decline in the coming years. Even a small decrease in population is a challenge for the economy in the long long, Deskins said.

The Morgantown MSA, on the other hand, has had a consistent increase in population, and the BBER foresees that growth continuing in the future. Morgantown is by far one of the youngest areas of the state, which isn’t surprising because of WVU’s presence, he said.

“Overall for the state, the biggest challenge that we do face is declining population and also an aging population,” Deskins said. “Our population is getting older and older, and that doesn’t bode well for economic growth in the future.”

He explained that the median age in West Virginia is about five years older than the national median age, but the Morgantown MSA’s median age is a decade younger than the state average.

Deskins said West Virginia ranks very close to the bottom in terms of health outcomes, and the state must concentrate on good public policy in order to try to combat the economic effects of the declining and aging population.

“The state needs to focus on fundamentals,” he said. “It needs to focus on human capital. It needs to focus on good educational outcomes and good health outcomes.”

For more information on the BBER or to access the reports, visit www.be.wvu.edu/bber.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.