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West Georgia economy recovering despite COVID-19 pandemic, jobs recovery slowed in region
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West Georgia’s economy is recovering amid the coronavirus pandemic, but a UWG economist says the pace of job recovery within the region has slowed.

The initial effect of the pandemic on west Georgia’s county-level unemployment rates was “both significant and immediate,” according to the 2020 West Georgia Regional Update report, written by economists at UWG’s Richards College of Business.

In January, the west Georgia region’s unemployment was at 3.3%, but by the April business shutdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the rate for the region jumped into the double digits at 12.3%. Polk County’s unemployment rate topped the region at 14.5%.

But unemployment rates dropped as quickly as they skyrocketed following the shutdown. Even though the state’s economy is fully reopened, the expectations of a rapid and complete recovery have faded, the report said.

Dr. Joey Smith, economic chair at the Richards College of Business and one of the authors of the report, talked about how COVID-19 has impacted the economy this year, describing the pandemic’s impact on various economic indicators from the construction industry to the automobile and retail sectors.

Smith presented the 2020 West Georgia Regional Update report on Tuesday at an economics forecast event at the Burson Center. He was joined by Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Brad McMillan, the chief investment officer at the Commonwealth Financial Network.

“It’s clear the state and the west Georgia region are both continuing to regain lost ground, but despite the declines in the unemployment rates of the region, the pace of job recovery has slowed,” the report said. “This can be attributed to a decline in the size of the labor force. Workers who were temporarily laid off may have left the area in search of work or may be reluctant to reenter the workforce.”

The regional update economic report was also written by Hilde Patron, director of the Center for the Business and Economic Research, and economics professors David Boldt and Mary Kassis. The west Georgia region includes Carroll, Coweta, Douglas, Haralson, Paulding and Polk counties.

Some sectors of the economy in the west Georgia region were impacted severely by the business shutdown, including medical and such personal services as hair and beauty salons.

During the early months of the pandemic, local hospitals such as those within the Tanner Health System had to suspend elective surgeries, which meant less jobs and fewer services to residents seeking medical attention.

“Up until recently, healthcare was the star of our region,” Smith said. “There were 20,000 jobs starting in 2018, and it was going up from there. It makes up about a fifth of the entire service sector.”

“Right now, we’re seeing wages decline and we may see some job declines in healthcare. However, because of the nature of the pandemic, we will probably see that come back relatively quickly.”

Vehicle sales have also been sliding down, which has impacted the automobile industry because fewer cars are being built. Smith said all three of the vehicle manufacturers in the west Georgia region, including Honda, Kia and Hyundai, have seen sales decline this year.

Wages for manufacturing have decreased 1.9%, and there has also been a 1.1% reduction year over year in jobs within this sector, Smith said, and this was occurring before the pandemic.

“It’s going to take months and months for us to be able to recover those sales nationally,” he said. “That’s taking money right out of our local wage earners and it is hitting the businesses that manufacture parts for those automobile sectors.”

However, there are industries that were benefited by the coronavirus pandemic, including the food service industry with the use of curbside and home deliveries by restaurants. Major retailers such as Walmart and Amazon have seen activity “go through the roof” as people have been shopping and ordering more online, Smith said.

Retail wages are going up, but Smith said this will not continue much longer and added brick-and-mortar retailers need to “get into gear” and start using online shopping. While it is not the case that all sales need to go online, he said these retailers will be left behind if they do not go somewhat digital.

Meanwhile, he added the construction industry has been mostly unaffected by the pandemic because the housing market is robust within the region.

Demand is still high for housing, but the supply is limited. Homes are on the market for an average of 50 days, and neither buyers nor sellers are wasting time in making deals, he added.

While there was a bit of a dip of the construction industry’s work force in May, he added the number of workers within this sector has not changed much this year.

In the housing market, Smith said building permits are up 23.5% this year in the west Georgia region. He added that interest rates are down to 2.81%, which he said is “unheard of” because 30-year mortgage rates have never been this low.

“One thing that we don’t know is whether those mortgage forbearances are going to come back to bite us,” he said. “A lot of people across the country are maybe not making their mortgage payments or paying rent because of federal policy. We don’t know whether that will come back and trigger foreclosures and evictions later this year, because that all ends Dec. 31.”

Rock quarry proposal near Whitesburg to be considered by state environmental division
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The state is about to consider plans for a rock quarry that for months has caused controversy in Whitesburg.

Nearly 300 comments on the project were submitted last month by area residents, which will now be among the items considered by the state Environmental Protection Division. Many residents oppose the plan, as do some environmentalists.

Developer Green Rock, LLC is proposing to construct a rock quarry on approximately 360 acres at the intersection of Black Dirt and Hutcheson Roads. The developer estimates the value of the property to be $20 million.

Because this is a quarry, it is subject to a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) study through the state. The review process included giving parties that will be potentially affected an opportunity to comment. Before any operations can begin, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division must issue a Mining Land Use Permit to the developer.

The comment period for this proposed development ended on Sept. 30 after having been extended three times. Residents, governments and other interested parties were invited to comment to the Three Rivers Commission through the DRI process.

Most of the residents who commented on the project opposed the development, Three Rivers Regional Commission Planner Kimberly Dutton said by email.

The proposed site for the quarry is zoned agricultural, and former District 5 Commissioner Kevin Jackson said a rezoning request through the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission was not necessary at the time the plans were put forth.

Dee Perry is a member of the Citizens United for Rural Protection group, which was formed to stop the construction of the rock quarry. In an email, she said the quarry review must include documentation from Green Rock that shows that the Mining Land Use Permit is consistent with the land use of the proposed site.

Because the proposed site is agricultural, she added a mining operation is not consistent with the “quiet, agricultural and residential” part of the county bordering the Chattahoochee River and two county parks that are attended by thousands of residents.

The documents that Green Rock must provide must come from Carroll County officials, and at least one county commissioner opposes the project.

District 5 Commissioner Ernest Reynolds, who represents Whitesburg, and Whitesburg Mayor Amy Williford both opposed the project. The Coweta County Board of Commissioners and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper environmental organization have also voiced their opposition.

After hearing about the project, Reynolds presented a 60-day moratorium on rock quarries on agricultural land in July. The following month, the county Board of Commissioners updated the county’s zoning ordinance to ban mining operations on agricultural land.

A copy of a memo by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s General Counsel Kevin Jeselnik obtained by the Times-Georgian says the rock quarry would “significantly impact” the river and its tributaries.

Established in 1994, the Riverkeeper organization’s mission is to advocate for and secure the protection of the Chattahoochee as well as its lakes, tributaries and watershed. The organization shares the concerns of Whitesburg residents from blasting on communities as well as the aquatic life, according to the memo.

“Chattahoochee Riverkeeper appreciates the Three Rivers Regional Commission’s review of this proposed quarry project as a Development of Regional Impact,” the memo said. “CRK believes there is potential for this project to significantly impact the Chattahoochee River and tributaries adjacent to and nearby the development site. As such, we request that the Commission evaluate and provide recommendations to minimize any impacts on local and neighboring communities.”

Economists concerned third wave of coronavirus cases could pose problems for economy
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While some industries are coming back amid the coronavirus pandemic, economists have some concerns that another wave of positive virus cases could continue to cause problems.

Meanwhile, the state Labor Department has given $15 billion in unemployment insurance to 1.4 million residents across Georgia during the pandemic, more than in the last 27 years combined.

During the early months of the pandemic, local hospitals such as those within the Tanner Health System had to suspend elective surgeries, which meant less jobs and fewer services to residents seeking medical attention.

“Ironically, the biggest threat to healthcare is COVID,” said Dr. Joey Smith, economics chair at the Richards College of Business at UWG. “What it is doing right now is increasing costs, reducing the number of office visits and leading patients to cancel procedures. This is part of the potential for that third wave of COVID. We’re already seeing cases starting to go up again.”

Smith was joined by Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Commonwealth Financial Network’s Chief Investment Officer Brad McMillan to present the University of West Georgia’s Richards College of Business annual Economic Forecast at the Burson Center.

Death rates are falling, and Smith said healthcare providers have gotten better at treating the virus than at the height of the pandemic in April.

He said there is a hotspot in nearby Polk County, which is on the southern edge of the west Georgia region he and the Richards College of Business have studied for the economic forecast. This county leads the west Georgia region as having the highest number of cases per every 100,000 residents.

If a coronavirus vaccine is not administered, he said some segments of the economy, including the automobile industry and small businesses, could “continue to have some severe problems.”

McMillan said that the growth in cases is rising faster, while there are multiple state-level outbreaks. Medical risks are now significant at the national level, he added.

“We need to be aware that the number of active cases is rising,” McMillan said. “A good example is the burden on the healthcare system. This is something the doctors have been talking about. People are getting the disease and recovering, and if we can see the balance and that it does come into balance, then we can manage the impact on the healthcare system.”

Some states that have reopened their economies are already seeing a third wave of coronavirus cases, McMillan said, while others are reversing course on reopening.

“What we’re going to see as the coronavirus hits the third wave is states that have reopened slow down,” he said. “What’s interesting during the first and second waves is not the shutdowns that brought things back, but people changing their behavior. We’re going to see people changing their behavior, even in the absence of government mandated shutdowns.”

He said there are pandemic risks that are rising, including the spread rate and the active number of cases increasing. Rural areas are harder to treat and manage, he said, and more areas will be at risk.

The state Labor Department has issued more unemployment insurance claims to residents affected by the coronavirus pandemic than in the last nine years combined, Butler said.

He added that nine out of every 10 residents getting unemployment benefits from the state earns $30,000 or less, while less than 5% of those on unemployment make more than $50,000 annually.

Approximately 3.9 million claims were filed by workers affected by the coronavirus this year, which is almost four times the number of claims during the height of the Great Recession of 2008. In 2019, 291,692 claims were filed before the pandemic began in March.

These are not individual claims filed by individual people, Butler said, and he added if this were the case, the state’s entire workforce would have been filing for unemployment. Nearly half of these claims were not valid, meaning they were either duplicated or fraudulent.

In August, west Georgia counties combined for 14,137 new unemployment insurance claims, which represents a nearly 15-fold increase from August 2019, according to the 2020 West Georgia Regional Update report prepared by the Richards College of Business at UWG. This is also 76% higher than the pre-pandemic peak from January 2009.

“The number of new UI claims dropped quickly just after the end of the shutdown, initially suggesting a fast recovery,” the report said. “However, subsequent months yielded progressively slower declines in UI claims, until August, when the month-to-month decline in new UI claims for west Georgia popped back up from a 21.4% decline from June to July, to a 47.1% decline from July to August.”

Thefts of political campaign signs continue
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With Election Day a week away, campaign signs continue to be stolen in Carroll County.

Rick Tillman, chair of the Carroll County Republican Party, has said that “at least a dozen or more” individuals have communicated to him that their campaign signs for presidential candidate Donald Trump have been stolen.

This comes two weeks after reports from the Carroll County Democratic Party that signs for presidential candidate Joe Biden were being stolen. Law enforcement have confirmed reports that signs for both candidates have been stolen.

Tillman said that additionally, approximately 40 signs were lost in the area of Highway 115 to Temple, and approximately 30 to 40 in the Oak Mountain area.

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office officials said that they received one report last weekend of a stolen Trump sign. Meanwhile, Carrollton Police Department also had just one report of a stolen Trump sign since Oct. 1.

Both Tillman and Democratic Chair Pat Rhudy have staunchly condemned stealing signs, regardless of political affiliation. Both also urge anyone who has had one of their signs taken to contact law enforcement.

A person who is found to have stolen a political campaign sign may be charged with theft by taking and a person who is found on someone’s property without permission may be served and/or charged with criminal trespass.

“I think it’s ridiculous, I condemn it and I know that Pat Rhudy would,” said Tillman. “It’s so juvenile. Why steal signs?”

Zeta to bring rain, wind into Carroll County
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A flash flood watch has been issued for Carroll County as officials brace for potential impacts from Tropical Storm Zeta.

The National Weather Service issued the watch, which will take effect at 8 a.m. today, Oct. 28, and end tomorrow at 8 p.m.

“Periods of heavy rainfall are expected across the area with the rain bands associated with Tropical Storm Zeta as it weakens and tracks across the forecast area Wednesday night through Thursday,” according to the NWS notice.

A flash flood watch means that conditions may develop that lead to flash flooding; a warning means that flash flooding has occurred.

Carroll County’s Emergency Management Agency officials said that moisture from Zeta will be moving into the area on Wednesday before the actual storm arrives.

As of press time Tuesday, the storm was classified as a tropical storm, however Tropical Storm Zeta is expected to strengthen into a Category 1 Hurricane today before making landfall on the Louisiana coast Wednesday morning.

The primary concern in Carroll County is heavy rain and strong winds. Approximately three to four inches of rain are forecast for the area through Thursday.

It is anticipated that sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph will occur across the area Thursday morning, with wind gusts of 40 to 45 mph being possible. Higher wind gusts are possible in any thunderstorms or heavier rain bands.

On a five-scale meter, the threat for severe weather is at a level two, or “Marginal Risk,” for late Wednesday into Thursday morning, with that threat shifting south during the day on Thursday.