A recent survey shows nearly half of the members of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce questioned believe 2013 will be about the same economically as the previous year. With sluggish economic growth in past years and recently announced budget and job cutbacks at the Anniston Army Depot local business owners have reason to be wary.
The survey and economic data were presented Wednesday during the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic forum. Mark Hearn and Richard Cobb, professors of management and marketing at Jacksonville State University’s College of Commerce and Business Administration, compiled the survey and data.
“There is caution, pulling back a little bit and staying put,” Hearn said of the survey responses.
According to the survey, 48 percent of chamber members think business activity in 2013 will be about the same as last year. Also, 42 percent believe the local economy will be worse off in 2013 than last year. The responses indicate a dip in optimism compared to the chamber’s survey last year, which showed that 57 percent of members thought 2012 would be a better year than 2011.
Due to their unenthusiastic economic outlook for 2013, just 24 percent said they were likely to hire more workers this year — a 3.2 percent decrease from those surveyed last year. Also, 67 percent said they would keep their current number of employees.
“People are not cutting back much but they are not adding either,” Hearn said. “That’s not the way we want to see it go.”
The survey also showed that 41 percent of chamber members said they might or might not increase any employee wages this year, down 6.7 percent from those surveyed last year.
Hearn said many of the chamber members surveyed are cautious due to sequestration — a term for federal budget cuts that began March 1 — and how it is expected to have an effect on the depot. The facility will lay off all of its 371 temporary employees at the end of the month and could furlough its 2,883 permanent employees up to 22 days through the rest of the year.
With about 5,400 total employees, the depot is the county’s largest employer.
To Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, who spoke about the depot during the forum, it’s clear why the budget cuts would concern local businesses.
“The depot has a $24 million economic impact on the county and directly or indirectly impacts around 21,000 jobs,” Hill said. “This is the economic engine of the community.”
Weak economic recovery for the county since the 2008 recession is also cause for concern for local businesses.
The county’s gross domestic product and labor force are flat, Hearn said.
Hearn’s statistics show the county’s GDP barely increased to $3.69 billion in 2011 from $3.67 billion in 2010. The county labor force remained around 53,000 workers for 2011 and 2012.
Hearn noted that an indicator of improvement was that the county’s unemployment rate in December was 6.8 percent. However, in terms of recovery, employment in the Anniston-Oxford metro area is still down 6.4 percent compared to its peak in 2007 before the recession — making it the weakest employment recovery of all the state’s metro areas. For instance, Birmingham employment in 2012 was down 5.4 percent and Montgomery employment in 2012 was down 3.8 percent compared to 2007.
The forum also highlighted some successes in the county, including growing sales tax revenue. Oxford sales tax revenue increased to about $26 million in 2012 from $25.3 million in 2011. Anniston’s tax revenue also grew to around $19 million in 2012 from $17.47 million in 2011. However, Hearn noted that part of Anniston’s increase was due to a 1-cent sales tax increase the city approved in February that year.
Successes at McClellan were also highlighted at the forum. Robin Scott, executive director of the McClellan Development Authority, said 2012 was the first year his organization made a profit. Scott added that several industries located at McClellan are adding jobs, including Alagasco, which is adding between 30 and 40 new workers.
“McClellan’s growth benefits more than just the city of Anniston and even more than the county,” Scott said. “It has the potential to benefit the entire region.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.