Sitka’s economy is continuing to tick upwards, based on statistical data.
The latest issue of Sitka Trends shows a rebound in retail sales, unemployment, and personal income, paired with a decrease in the price of housing rentals.
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Garry White is the director of the the Sitka Economic Development Association, which publishes the Trends newsletter.
Gross retail sales in Sitka jumped $10-million between 2011 and 2012. White is careful about trying to read too much into that statistic.
“I’d attribute it to a couple of different things: The Blue Lake project was just kicking off then, and you’ve got contractors in buying lots of local stuff. And we have other construction projects happening around town. And inflation’s a part of it too. We’ve got increased gas prices, and groceries have gone up some.”
The increase in retail sales has meant an increase in sales taxes collected by local government — $400,000 more went into city coffers in 2013 than in 2011.
Unemployment has also decreased — a full percentage point since 2011. It stands now at 5.1-percent. That’s over two points below the national average.
But the statistic alone doesn’t tell the full story: The Department of Labor reports Sitka’s workforce has also decreased over the past two years — by over thirty employees.
That, plus small bumps in prices, says White, means that things may not be all that great for Sitka’s wage earners, regardless of the overall numbers.
“You look at little jumps and you don’t realize what a percentage that is. For instance, the Sentinel went from $.50 to $.75 — that quarter doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s a 50-percent increase. If you used to buy something for $1 and now it’s a $1.25 at the grocery store, that’s a 25-percent increase. Over a volume, those percentages add up.
Happily, per-capita income is up in Sitka, by over $1,000 from last year. And a bright spot — at least for consumers — is the cost of housing. The market for rentals is down over 8-percent. An efficiency apartment in Sitka now goes for $790, down from $860 last year. And there are corresponding decreases for larger units.
Buying a home in Sitka, remains an expensive proposition, though the average list price for single-family has come down by almost $150,000 over the last two years.Again, White is reluctant to perform too much analysis on a limited set of data. But, like the rest of us, he can observe things happening in the community that aren’t quantified by government. He talks about a conversation he had recently with city finance director Jay Sweeney.
“What’s the barometer of how the economy is doing in Sitka? Is that the downtown retail stores are flourishing? The fish plants are jam-packed? Is it all the different construction jobs? It’s hard to manage. And one thing that he had brought up was that you can look at these events: Last weekend we had the Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet — sold out. The Roller Derby bout — sold out. A number of different entertainment venues: the Wearable Art show a couple of weeks ago — sold out. So people are going out and spending money with disposable income. Yet we’ve got empty downtown retail shops.”
White says empty stores are a symptom of his biggest economic concern: “leakage.” He says shopping local — and developing local industry — are both critical to keeping more money in Sitka.