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Washtenaw County Economic Outlook Sours on Retail

Last week, researchers at the University of Michigan released their annual report on the economic status of Washtenaw County. The report paints a mixed picture of the county’s recovery from COVID-19. close.

Although the unemployment rate here has not fully recovered from its pre-pandemic levels, it is getting Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the unemployment rate in Washtenaw County was 2.3% – one of the lowest in the state. In December 2021, the unemployment rate in Washtenaw County was 3.8%.

The recovery here has not arrived equally among the largest economic sectors. The report authors divide the recovery into “full-recovery” and “incomplete recovery” sectors. For full recovery sectors, the authors predict they will meet or surpass near-full employment rates in the next 12 months. The biggest gainers will come from professional sectors, like management, finance and insurance, construction, and private health/social services.

Incomplete recovery sectors may never return to their pre-pandemic levels. These sectors include accommodations and food service; retail; and real estate rental and leasing. I mention this because the WCC Master Plan relies on these three incomplete recovery sectors.

The irony of the Washtenaw County Economic Outlook report is that WCC has its name on the cover as a sponsor. You can be certain, however, that no one in the WCC Administration or on its Board of Trustees will spend too much time listening to economists. Especially ones that make forecasts that contradict The Plan.

Washtenaw County Economic Outlook impacts Master Plan

The hotel and convention center: The accommodation and food service sector has not experienced the same level of recovery as other sectors, and it will not. With an average annual wage of just slightly above $21,000, hotels will have a tough time filling their vacant positions for years to come.

Retail: Also, kind of a bust. The pandemic has not only taught people to shop online. It has also taught online retailers how to negate the advantages of brick-and-mortar employers. The retail sector will be stagnant through at least 2024, if it is lucky.

Real estate renting and leasing: Remember those “retail outlots” that certain trustees were so hot to promote in the Master Plan? This goes together with the retail sector. When the retailers are not in a renting mood, the real estate renting and leasing businesses fall off.

This highlights a crucial point. The Trustees went all-in on all three of these sectors in the Master Plan. It is critical that we do this! We need a convention center! We need a hotel! And we need to turn the parking lots into a shopping mall! Think of all the money we will make!

Pandemic put the brakes on the WCC Master Plan

Had it not been for the pandemic, Washtenaw County taxpayers would have been staggering under the tone-deaf burden of the current WCC Master Plan. And we have no guarantee that the current crop of Trustees will give up on this one.

If anything, the report highlights the WCC Master Plan’s lack of fitness for purpose. In fact, it goes beyond being unfit, and straight into dangerous. It also underscores the inability of the WCC Trustees to make decisions that benefit the community or promote solid policy. Which is funny, since one of the Trustees believes that people elected her to give advice to the WCC President. Another claims the Board is all about making policy.

The WCC Trustees spent a lot of money on the Master Plan and a lot of time influencing the results of the “community survey.” Whether they heed the economic warning that has been hand-delivered to them remains to be seen.

Photo Credit: Robert Stinnett , via Flickr