The November unemployment rate in Gila County dropped 1.2 percent — about twice as big a drop as the state as a whole.
The Rim Country decline of 8.1 to 7.8 percent was less, but ended up much better than the countywide figure.
Despite the sharp drop in Gila County overall, the seasonally adjusted November unemployment rate of 10.3 percent still remained above the state rate of 8.9 or the national rate of 10 percent, according to a report released Thursday by the Arizona Department of Commerce.
Local observers said they haven’t seen much sign of a recovery yet, but expressed relief that the numbers at least aren’t rising.
“It’s still brutal out there,” said John Stanton, manager of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce. He said the town has lost about two dozen businesses in the past year and many people have given up looking for work.
But lately, job and business losses had stabilized, with new businesses offsetting continuing losses — like the recent shutdown of the Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber Co. and hardware store, which employed 50 people at its peak, but had declined to about 14 when it closed.
“I’m guardedly hopeful that things will improve, but it’s going to depend on us supporting what we have here instead of going down to the Valley and buying things.”
Ken Volz, executive director of the Northern Gila County Regional Economic Development Corporation, said “Things are certainly getting better, but people still feel pretty hunkered down. We’re starting to get more jobs, but ultimately we’ve got to diversify the job base or we’ll just get get ourselves back in the same situation where we rely too much on low wage type jobs that will never get us out of this vicious cycle.”
The statewide numbers for November released last week showed employment in Gila County rose from 19,550 in October to 20,225 in November.
Of those jobs, the service industry accounted for nearly three-quarters of all the jobs, and government for nearly one-quarter.
Much of the unemployment in Gila County remained concentrated in the south, although the once-booming construction industry has died out even in the northern reaches of the county.
Statewide, the nearly half a percent decline in the unemployment rate represented an addition of 12,800 jobs. That contrasts with last November when the state’s economy shed 19,000 jobs.
At this time last year, Arizona’s unemployment rate stood at 6.4 percent and the nation’s at 6.8 percent.
Trade, transportation, business services, leisure and health services accounted for the bulk of the job gains — with increases of 2,000 to 5,000 in each sector. Government also added 1,700 jobs, most of them federal.
On the other hand, most other sectors continued to decline. Construction suffered another crippling month, shedding another 4 percent or about 5,400 jobs.
Employment in the construction industry now stands at 132,000 — about the same as in 1996. Since this time last year, 22 percent of the jobs in the construction industry have melted away.
In Payson, for instance, the town has issued just 27 permits for single family housing this year, about 10 percent of the permits issued during the peak building years four or five years ago.
The “information sector” also took a beating in the November numbers, shedding 300 jobs — down 6 percent from this time last year.
Although government gained jobs in November, government payrolls have still declined 4 percent since this time last year — a total of 18,500 jobs. That includes a 6 percent drop in state payrolls and a 5 percent drop for local government — contrasted with a 2.5 percent increase for the federal government in Arizona.
Stanton said the figures underscore the need for local residents to support local businesses.
The chamber has started a “3/50” program — urging residents to pick three local, independent businesses they hope will survive the downturn and spend at least $50 in that store every three months.
“We’re trying to get people to ‘be loyal, buy local,’” said Stanton.
Moreover, the chamber has launched a program which will produced a $450 check for anyone who buys a car at Chapman Auto Center.
“At least six cars sold in the last two weekends, so it looks like it’s working pretty well — even (Payson Councilor) Su Connell bought a car.”
Stanton said a trickle of new businesses have opened in recent months, making up for the loss of 24 businesses he’d recorded in October. A survey back in August revealed 143 empty storefronts in Payson.
“At the moment, we’re not really losing anything — we’re staying pretty steady,” said Stanton.
Volz said that the region should focus on attracting different kinds of businesses as the economy recovers. He cited the potential impact of a four-year college campus as an example of the kind of diverse job growth the region needs to attract.
“What we continue to do around here even in good times is to continue to create a class of working poor — they may have a job, but they require subsidies in terms of housing or the necessities of life. So the prospects we keep hearing about of getting ASU in here, that would change the equation completely — the types of workers it would bring in, not just the academic types, but the spinoff of that type of environment.”