12-2-2020 – Report shows foothills region struggling

Posted on: December 2nd, 2020 by admin

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December 2, 2020

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By Guy Lucas guylucas@newstopicnews.com

Dec 1, 2020 Updated 13 hrs ago

 

A swath of North Carolina’s foothills — stretching from the South Carolina line through Caldwell County to near the Virginia line — has fallen behind other counties in the western part of the state, according to a new state report.

 

Caldwell remains identified among the state’s 40 most economically distressed counties in the N.C. Department of Commerce’s North Carolina Development Tier Designations report, but it has gained local company.

 

Both Burke and Alexander counties dropped into Tier 1, the designation for the most economically distressed. That creates a region of six contiguous counties — Rutherford, Cleveland, Burke, Caldwell, Alexander and Wilkes — designated as Tier 1.

 

Only the state’s impoverished Coastal Plain has a larger collection.

 

The Tier 1 designation can help those counties get certain grants and other economic development aid. The 20 counties that are judged best off are designated as Tier 3, and the rest are Tier 2.

 

High unemployment driven by the pandemic was one reason for Caldwell and others losing ground, said Deborah Murray, the executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. The report uses the average unemployment rate for each county from October 2019 to September 2020, so the severe effects of closures during the pandemic were factored in. Caldwell County’s unemployment rate was just the 47th highest in last year’s tier report, but it’s 27th highest this year.

 

One major caveat applies to this year’s tier designations report: It is based largely on data from before the pandemic struck, so the picture it paints of any county’s economic health may be somewhat out of synch with real conditions.

 

For instance, the median household income numbers in the report come from 2018. Population growth figures are from July 2016 to July 2019.

 

Still, Caldwell County retreated in comparison with other counties in the data used by the report. Last year, Caldwell was rated as being the 40th most economically distressed county and dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 1. The county had teetered right around the Tier 1/Tier 2 cutoff line for several years.

 

But this year it is rated as 26th most distressed, solidly in the pack for Tier 1.

 

Besides unemployment, a big factor in that drop was a decline in household income from $44,798 in 2017, 44th lowest in the state, to $43,328 in 2018, 34th lowest.

 

“Median household income was the most significant disappointment,” Murray said. “We know that Caldwell’s average private sector wage has grown substantially in recent years (and is not yet released for this year) so there is more study of the numbers needed to understand the drop from 2017 to 2018.”

 

Murray said that one bright spot for Caldwell was its per-capita property tax base, which is the overall assessed value of property in the county divided by population. Caldwell increased its per-capita tax base year over year by approximately $4,000, to $87,524.

 

And Murray thinks that a perennial problem statistic for the county, population growth, may be poised for improvement. One significant multi-family apartment project, in the former Blue Bell factory near downtown Lenoir, is underway, and Murray thinks more will follow once that project demonstrates the demand here for market-rate apartments.

 

“I do not mind telling you that given the growth in the pipeline for housing and local new and expanded industry, Caldwell’s economy will move us back to Tier 2 in the near future,” she said.

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