OCEAN CITY – As COVID-19 recovery efforts continue, business leaders say they are optimistic about the future of the local economy.
On Wednesday, regional economists, economic development directors and business leaders gathered at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center for the 33rd Annual Southern Delmarva Economic Forecast.
The event – presented by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network (BEACON) at Salisbury University – featured an analysis of challenges facing the regional, national and global economy, as well as discussions on local issues, initiatives and opportunities.
BEACON Director Dr. Memo Diriker said despite recent events, a recent forecast of economic activity highlighted the community’s confidence.
“Hope was the word that was used the most to describe the economy,” he said, “and enthusiasm was the second.”
In his presentation this week, Salisbury University economics professor Dr. Dustin Chambers noted improvements in U.S. unemployment statistics and sharp rebounds in most sectors of the economy. But he said more people are voluntarily withdrawing from the labor force.
“We saw this during the housing crisis as well,” he said. “Policymakers extended unemployment benefits, which at the outset seemed like a compassionate thing to do. But as the economy recovers, it’s ill advised to continue with aggressive unemployment benefits moving forward, as it creates a disincentive, to not reenter the labor force.”
Chambers added that increased savings and lower mortgage rates were also fueling a national housing boom. In Worcester and Wicomico counties, he said, the market has steadily improved since the Great Recession.
“You can see there has been a recovery since that time,” he said, “and the market seems to be on fire.”
Officials told attendees this week the pandemic had a significant impact on the tourism and hospitality sectors in 2020. However, they projected a rebound in car travel to benefit the resort economy.
“If you can’t fly to go off on a vacation, you are most likely to drive,” Chambers said. “And an area like Ocean City, near so many population centers, it would be an attractive alternative to say flying to Europe or across the United States.”
Melanie Pursel, tourism and economic development director for Worcester County, said the local tourism and hospitality industry took the biggest hit during the pandemic. She noted that lodgings were down 17% and restaurants were down 12.6% from July to December 2020.
Pursel also highlighted efforts to address local labor shortages.
“We know it is a national issue, but here it is a paralyzing issue,” she said. “We are very concerned.”
Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Executive Director Dave Ryan agreed.
“The demand for talent and trying to attract talent to your organization is as great today as it’s ever been,” he said.
In Wicomico, Ryan said $12.7 million in federal assistance was distributed to roughly 1,200 businesses in the last year. And while some businesses have suffered during the pandemic, others have prospered.
“Residential construction is driving a lot of the economy today in Wicomico County,” he added. “It’s something we haven’t seen in years – a decade, 15 years, since the Great Recession.”
Sussex County Economic Development Director Bill Pfaff said his county has also seen growth in residential and commercial construction. He said between July 2020 and June 2021, Sussex is projected to issue more than 12,000 building permits.
“From a growth standpoint, we have not missed a beat during COVID,” he said.
On Wednesday, economic development directors from six counties highlighted ongoing initiatives to attract and retain businesses and improve quality of life for citizens. Business leaders were also on hand to discuss broadband and wind energy development, agriculture, health and hospitality.
Following the economic forecast, the Lower Shore legislative delegation met to answer questions regarding the 2021 General Assembly session.