Deskins: Wheeling Area Economy “Not Fully Recovered” From COVID-19 | News, Sports, Jobs

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John Deskins, associate dean of West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics, discusses the economic outlook for West Virginia and the northern Panhandle Thursday morning as part of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Outlook Conference.

WHEELING – West Virginia University’s leading economist says the Wheeling area’s economy has yet to recover from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its 2022 Economic Outlook Conference Thursday morning at the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino Racetrack. Financial and business leaders shared their thoughts on the current economy, how it got to this point and where it is headed.

John Deskins, associate dean and director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics, told attendees that West Virginia has a lot of good things to offer right now. These include a historically low unemployment rate and slow but steady growth.

“But the good things are very concentrated geographically,” he said. “We have 45 of our 55 districts that are only moving sideways. The others stagnate.

“We must find ways to extend this good news to more than just 10 counties.”

He showed a map showing that Marshall County was among the top 10 growth counties in the state, along with Monongalia, Preston, Taylor, Harrison, and Doddridge counties in north-central West Virginia, Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the eastern Panhandle, and Jackson and Cabell Counties along the state’s western border.

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Another chart shows the county-by-county employment recovery in West Virginia since 2020 and the pandemic. It showed that all Northern Panhandle counties have had a recovery rate of less than 96% since that time, with most other counties at 99%.

Deskins provided more specific information about the “wheeling area,” which is defined as Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties in West Virginia, and Belmont counties in Ohio. The counties are all in the same metropolitan statistical area, he explained.

“I can say it was weaker here,” Deskins said. “We haven’t recovered from COVID as much here as we have in the entire state.

“It’s even worse than it looks because 2019 (pre-COVID) was a tough year for the wheeling space.”

Much of the pipeline construction in the region ended by then, and Deskins attributed this to why employment numbers were already low in January 2020. Additionally, both the Ohio Valley Medical Center and the former East Ohio Regional Hospital closed their doors in late 2019.

Overall, the latest unemployment numbers are a positive number for the Wheeling area, he added. These are similar to the West Virginia average, which is around 4%. The national unemployment rate is 3.5%

Local employment rates, on the other hand, speak a different language. This measure indicates the percentage of people in the civilian labor force who are either working or actively looking for work.

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West Virginia already has the lowest percentage of the labor force in the country at about 55%, with the national rate currently standing at 62.3%.

Among local counties, Ohio County had the highest employment rate at 57.6% and Wetzel had the lowest at 46.5%.

“It’s an older part of the state,” Deskins said of the Wheeling area. “With that comes lower labor force participation, and that lower demographic makes it difficult to get much momentum on a regional basis.”

In terms of per capita personal income, Ohio County is the wealthiest county in West Virginia, according to Deskins. At about $70,000 per year, it exceeds the national level of about $69,000.

The median personal income level in West Virginia is reported to be about $46,000, which is consistent with data from Belmont and Marshall counties. Wetzel County is slightly behind at about $44,000.

Likewise, David H. McKinley, President and Chief Investment Officer at McKinley Carter Wealth Services, spoke of the current economic climate as “a mixed bag.” He said he had trouble separating the state of the economy from that of the asset market.

“You’ve probably noticed that the economy continues to look pretty strong, but the market doesn’t,” McKinley said. “We had a really tough year in both the equity and bond markets in 2022, but the economy continues to storm ahead.

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“Unemployment is extraordinarily low, but the reality is that the outlook for the economy in 2023 is going to be pretty harsh and we need to prepare for that.”

More jobs are being created each month, but the earnings outlook “is starting to slow down a bit,” according to McKinley.

“The Federal Reserve is aggressively raising interest rates to slow economic growth — just to slow things down and avoid the inflationary problems we have today,” he said.

Early economic indicators are slowing, “but not collapsing,” he continued.

The economy does not reflect the market’s current instability, and McKinley believes there is “a lot going to happen” over the next six months.

“I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the fourth quarter of 2022 is positive — not enough to erase the losses of the first three quarters, but it will be positive,” he continued.

He also believes that if the Federal Reserve realizes a recession is coming, markets will rally.

“I know that sounds counterintuitive. But if (the Federal Reserve) gets what it needs, they will cut interest rates and pull out,” McKinley said.

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