Sometimes the hardest thing to find is a ray of sunshine on a very cloudy day. In the case of economic development, the clouds equate to the economy and the ray of sunshine relates to jobs and employment for our local residents.
The national economy may seem as dreary as a Seattle day, but here in Independence we still have a few rays that give us some hope that we’ll make it through this challenging time.
There is no doubt we are feeling the pinch of the current economic situation. Unemployment in Independence is at 6.9 percent, one of the highest levels in more than a decade. Total employment is also down significantly over previous years. Most of the blame can be pointed to a very soft retail sector that is hurting from consumers who are being cautious about new purchases, and much of the job loss locally is retail jobs.
All you have to do is read the national headlines and realize that the impact is resulting in a number of retailers either downsizing the number of stores or doing a complete liquidation as part of bankruptcy proceedings. Earlier this year, the International Council of Shopping Centers issued a report predicting the closure of 144,000 stores nationwide. That includes big-box retailers as well as small mom-and-pop businesses.
The good news is that even if the prediction by ICSC holds true, that figure is still below the total average for the period from 1993 to 2001. The problem is just amplified as part of the current discussion of the stock markets, the drop in housing values and election-year rhetoric. Independence has not been immune to these closures as big names such as Ann Taylor Loft, Basset Furniture and Linens-N-Things are among several that have closed local stores.
The good news is that our local manufacturers report they are surviving these turbulent times and in some cases continuing to grow and expand. We just recently completed an annual survey of manufacturers and found that a very low number appeared to be in trouble or in danger of closing in the near future. More than 50 percent indicated they plan to expand in the next 24 months and would make capital investment and add employment to support those expansions.
Diversity has also been a key to their success, as 59 percent of the manufacturers reported they have added new products in the past two years and 57 percent plan to add products in the next two years. Many also benefit from being locally owned and managed, which allows them to make quick decisions and adjust to changes in their various competitive markets.
Employment in manufacturing accounts for 14 percent of the total employment within Independence and is the only sector that currently shows indications that it will continue to grow, even as the economy struggles to get going in a positive direction. As a community, we must continue to focus on how we continue to grow and expand this sector that provides among the best quality jobs for the residents of Independence.
Manufacturing can be that “ray of sunshine” that we really could use right now.
Tom Lesnak is president of the Independence Council for Economic Development