GREENSBORO — The local economy is looking brighter.
If you have a job.
Since January 2008, retail sales, real estate and stock investments have seen gut-wrenching lows. But those lows are dissipating for those who managed to hold on.
Now, investors are enjoying record highs in the stock market.
Many surviving retailers have seen slow but steady sales increases during the past two years, especially for home-improvement products and cars.
Homeowners are finding they can sell their houses after four years of a frozen market.
Even companies that own or manage industrial buildings and office space are seeing bright spots here and there.
But in the Piedmont Triad, 78,000 people fight every day to find companies that will simply read their resumes. They try to learn the right skills to get jobs. They struggle to keep their composure under great pressure.
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And if you don’t have a job, prosperity remains an abstract notion.
The recession — as defined by economists — ended four years ago.
But recovery is slow. The economy grows a bit, retreats a bit, then grows some more, all at a low level.
“It started from such a low point in 2009 that things still don’t feel right in 2013, in spite of four years of weak-to-moderate growth,” said Andrew Brod, a senior research fellow at UNCG’s Bryan School of Business and Economics.
Here’s a look at some major segments of the local economy: employment, real estate — commercial and residential — retail and investments.
Unemployment in this region, however you measure it, is very bad.
Middle-class people who have never been out of work find themselves chronically unemployed and slipping into poverty. In the recession’s wake, 20 percent of Greensboro residents are poor, according to 2011 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the Greensboro-High Point metro area, which covers Guilford, Rockingham and Randolph counties, the June unemployment rate was 9.7 percent. The seasonally adjusted rate was 9.3 percent. That’s a slight improvement from a year ago, amounting to a net increase of 4,500 jobs compared with June 2012.
But pull back that lens and look at the state-designated Piedmont Triad Partnership region: an area that encompasses Guilford, Forsyth and 10 surrounding counties.
Since Jan. 1, 2008, the number of unemployed people in the region has grown from 45,000 to 78,000.
Many had already lost jobs when the textile, tobacco and furniture industries slashed production.
Other kinds of industries — telephone call centers, advanced manufacturing, transportation — began to add jobs. But some of them went away, too.
Marcus Belk was laid off from Greensboro’s American Express call center in 2011 when 1,500 jobs were cut or moved elsewhere.
He got a good severance package and went to school at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem.
Advisers there told him an associate’s degree in nanotechnology would be a good route to a job.
Nanotechnology — the science of reducing particles in paint, coatings and medicine, for example — is growing rapidly as innovations come along.
But when he graduated in May, the High Point resident hit a wall.
“Everybody wants a minimum of a bachelor’s degree,” Belk said.
So the 33-year-old submits applications for any job that seems promising. Most of them are never answered. Even for customer-service jobs.
Before his nanotechnology training, Belk had good positions at American Express. He had been an instructor for other employees, even a quality-control analyst.
“I’m just a generally positive person,” Belk said. “It’s kind of tough sometimes ’cause the bills are going out but there’s nothing coming in — the savings continue to dwindle.”
Belk’s classmate from Forsyth Tech, Christine O’Grady, now helps manage the Bark Lodge in Kernersville, working with customers and their dogs.
The 39-year-old High Point resident loves the work. But it’s not full time, and she needs benefits.
O’Grady not only has a degree in nanotechnology, she also has a degree from GTCC in applied science.
In theory, she said, she is qualified to do lab tests and other jobs at medical or technology companies.
She has applied for several jobs and, like Belk, has not heard back or has been offered entry-level jobs that “I would be crazy to do.”
“I had a lot of hope when we were coming up to the end of the semester,” O’Grady said. “It’s very disheartening not to be able to do that. It makes me feel like I just wasted my time going to college and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere.”
At 8.9 percent, North Carolina’s unemployment rate is 0.7 percentage points lower than a year ago. But the national rate is 7.4 percent.
Several employment segments are a drag on the Triad economy, according to a monthly analysis of the region’s economy produced by UNCG and called the Dixon Hughes Goodman Triad Business Index. The index defines the Triad as Guilford, Forsyth and four adjoining counties.
Manufacturing employment, the region’s staple industry, dropped by 1.7 percent in June compared with June 2012.
The number of education and health care jobs dropped by 3.3 percent, and that’s a segment that had been considered stable.
Such leisure industries as hotels and restaurants, as well as transportation, warehousing and other shipping industries added jobs.
Aviation jobs are growing, led by hiring at TIMCO Aviation Services, Honda Aircraft and others. Welding and machining positions are also increasing. Those industries say they can’t find enough qualified workers, so GTCC and other community colleges are working on new programs to help.
“Ultimately, a region grows because there’s jobs and income being created,” said Rick Kaglic, a senior regional economist for the Charlotte branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va. “When you take a look at the jobs numbers in the Greensboro area, it’s been a painfully slow recovery from the recession and it’s a long way from being back at prerecession levels.”
John and Natalie Prudente have great jobs. He works for Replacements Ltd., she works in human resources for a pharmaceutical company.
And they have a 4-week-old baby, Madalyn.
The Greensboro 30-year-olds are feeling “pinched” in their current Lake Daniel home with their new baby, so they hope to move to a bigger house.
Based on what they’ve seen, they’ll put their house on the market in a few months and take that step.
“In the winter and spring, there were quite a few houses for sale in the neighborhood,” John Prudente said, “and they all went pretty quickly at good prices.”
That’s a switch from the days when values were low and houses didn’t sell, he said.
Now the Prudentes are in the real estate sweet spot.
Home sales in the Triad increased by nearly 30 percent over the past 12 months, according to the Dixon Hughes index.
And the average price of those houses, about $174,000, is right in the middle of John Prudente’s selling range.
“The majority of houses here are $150,000 to $225,000, depending on what had been done,” Prudente said.
The family hopes to stay close to downtown with the ballpark, greenway, restaurants and other amenities.
They should be able to find a good mortgage, said Chris Young, a certified mortgage planner for Benchmark Mortgage/The Young Team.
Banks are now more flexible with their lending practices.
And buyers are more confident.
“We’ve seen the rising tide of people’s fortunes,” Young said. “That is creating a broader sense of stability in their finances. They feel better about going ahead and purchasing a home now. There is this natural tendency where people are taking on more risk, and there’s no doubt that housing has been a risk.”
Even the Federal Housing Administration has more confidence. Just a week ago, it reduced the amount of time borrowers with foreclosures must wait to get a loan from three years to one year.
Home construction appears to be growing as well.
Residential building permits in the Triad grew from $17.2 million in June 2012 to $24 million in June 2013.
This is a clear sign that contractors are more confident that they can build and sell more houses.
Commercial real estate
Commercial real estate, particularly in downtown Greensboro, has been red-hot news this year for one reason: hotels.
Greensboro’s center city is already loaded with local theaters, restaurants, museums and parks.
Now, developer Randall Kaplan has decided to build a roughly $40 million hotel on South Elm Street, and Roy Carroll plans another hotel near NewBridge Bank Park.
These come as downtown continues to see a wave of new condo and apartment developments. Carroll’s Center Pointe condo building at the heart of downtown is the most prominent of those.
And a noncommercial project — the Greensboro performing arts center — would use $60 million in public and private money to build a new focal point for downtown.
In Greensboro, and in Winston-Salem, downtown revival is a direct result of:
• Higher gas prices and interest in shorter commute times.
• Younger people who want to be near nightlife, amenities and restaurants.
• Retiring baby boomers who want to downsize, walk to restaurants and arts events, and enjoy a bustling environment.
“Young people are delaying marriage, delaying child-bearing,” said Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State who wrote his dissertation on downtown revivals.
“I think they’re much more attuned to living in a nonautomotive world and they value accessibility to nightlife, to amenities. And of course you do have universities that attract young people.”
Office and industrial real estate are crucial to a local economy. That’s a mixed bag beyond center city Greensboro and the Triad.
Warehouse and industrial space are selling out, said Richard Beard of Simpson Schulman & Beard in Greensboro.
His company manages the Rock Creek Park industrial center east of Greensboro.
Beard said that the industrial buildings his company owns or manages for others had about 900,000 square feet of vacant space at the beginning of 2013. But companies have scooped up that space so quickly that soon only 39,000 square feet will be open.
Warehouses are almost full Triadwide, he said.
As retail demand slowly grows, companies are shipping products and looking for places to store them.
“That’s good and bad,” Beard said. “Projects are going to be coming through the Triad and they’re going to want space, and I’m hoping we don’t lose them.”
But it is hard for companies — and banks — to take the risk and build warehouses before they sign tenants.
Meanwhile, companies that lease offices are also beginning to see improvements.
CBRE/Triad’s recent real estate survey said that in central Greensboro and Winston-Salem, office space is more than 90 percent leased. In other parts of the region, however, vacancies are much higher, according to the report.
CBRE reports that a couple of new office buildings are going up, but only as some companies need to expand. Otherwise, the Triad could see only sporadic office construction in the next two years.
It’s easy to see that Wal-Mart does well when the economy does badly. The poor and the rich alike are looking for bargains.
Beyond that, and such major shopping centers as Friendly Center, other success stories are finally growing.
The Dixon Hughes report shows that retail sales were $1.2 billion in June for the entire Triad, a 1.6 percent increase from June of last year.
Marty Kotis, the president and chief executive officer of Kotis Properties, is building a retail and grocery shopping center and a 100,000-square-foot corporate park in northwestern Greensboro. His company has built five other projects in the past few months.
Kotis said he believes that he doesn’t have to build a Friendly Center to benefit from its traffic.
His properties are scattered around the city, including Battleground Avenue, Green Valley Road and other shopping areas within the orbit of Friendly Center.
Also on Battleground Avenue, a very small shop has felt a strong turnaround.
The recession hurt Acme Comics.
“We definitely lost a good number of customers,” said Stephen Mayer, the manager of the Lawndale Shopping Center store.
“They couldn’t afford something as disposable as comics,” he said.
The big resurgence came in September 2011, Mayer said.
“We stopped hearing people being as concerned about having to pay bills first,” he said.
Growth since then has been faster than a speeding ... well, you know.
The store’s sales increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2012. Business was down by half in the worst part of the recession.
Now, Acme has expanded into 1,000 square feet next door.
Triad investors may have been biting their nails in 2008, but as they ride the market upward, they may be the most fortunate of all.
The News & Record compiled a list of 10 companies based in or near Greensboro.
While these companies may have reached mixed results individually, anyone who invested in the group probably made out well.
This reflects the national trend. In four years, the Dow Jones industrial average has grown from about 7,000 to 15,000 points.
But it also emphasizes the dramatic disparity in the economy.
“I do believe economically the city’s better, the state’s better, the country’s better,” said Jonathan Smith, managing partner at Jonathan Smith & Co.
“But I can’t see that our improvement has come from individual corporate productivity, hours worked, paychecks received,” Smith said.
“It’s almost like there’s an entire separate disconnected yardstick that’s supposed to tell us how we’re doing.”
The economy is slowly getting better … if you have a job.