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Local economy starts year on positive, but cautious note

By John Seelmeyer
Published: Last Updated on

Washoe County’s economy appears to improving as the New Year begins, but an economist who closely tracks business activity in the Reno-Sparks region says the COVID-19 pandemic still could create some bumpiness this year.

Eugenia Larmore, president of Ekay Economic Consultants Inc., says the signs that point to a good local economy include:

  • The number of people who were working in the area ticked upward a bit in November as the region’s economy added about 3,000 jobs. The region’s unemployment rate in November was 5.4%, which is below the U.S. jobless rate of 6.4%.
  • Consumers were spending more, and taxable sales in Washoe County in November were running more than 10% ahead of year-earlier figures.  Larmore says vehicle sales and online sales have been steadily increasing since May.
  • Home prices are rising, and the median price for an existing single-family home in the Reno-Sparks area during December — $449,600 — was 14% higher than a year ago.  Some of the increase, Larmore says, is caused by short supplies of homes on the market. People have been reluctant to sell and move during the pandemic.
  • Builders are showing a little more optimism, taking out permits for new apartment construction during November after taking a wait-and-see approach on additional construction through much of 2020.

But not everything is rosy as the economy begins a new year.

Larmore notes that tourism — gaming-related and otherwise — remains deep in the doldrums.  The number of passengers coming through Reno-Tahoe International Airport in November was less than half the figure from the same month a year ago.  Gaming revenues remain weak as well.

About 10,000 fewer people work in restaurants, hotels and casinos in the Reno-Sparks area today than a year ago, analysts from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation reported a couple of weeks ago.

Those lost jobs create a particular problem, Larmore notes, because average pay in the leisure and hospitality sector is the lowest of any industry in Washoe County.

“This means that the pandemic is impacting the lower-income households significantly more than it is impacting those earning more, creating more income inequality in the area,” the economist says.

Assuming that the economy escapes any big shocks, Larmore says she expects the local economy to show continued improvement so long as COVID-19 vaccination programs move forward.

But she says some bumps are likely if cases spike upward or more restrictions are required to keep the disease in check.

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