People are spending their money, staying in hotels and buying things such as cars and houses in Bryan-College Station -- all indicators that point toward a healthy local economy.
Karr Ingham, an Amarillo-based economist who spoke to attendees at the Bryan/College Station Chamber of Commerce's economic outlook briefing Wednesday, said the area has experienced an "extraordinary" economic expansion since 2011. General spending, home sales activity, employment and other indicators Ingham uses to prepare the local economic index sponsored by Commerce National Bank are currently at or near record levels, he said, and growth will likely continue moving into 2019.
Ingham specializes in indexing and tracking regional and metro area economies. Using information such as employment estimates, construction permits and hotel/motel tax receipts, the index offers a look at the overall state of the Bryan-College Station metro area's economy. He said Wednesday that while the index has flattened some after a period of sharp growth, it still has reflected an "impressively growing economy."
"It's sort of obvious when you look around here, but I don't need to come to town to know that," Ingham said. "I just know what all the numbers say."
General retail sales and employment are the two most representative indicators of the economy overall, Ingham said. Retail sales totals for July -- the most recently available data -- are down about 2.6 percent from the same month last year. Ingham said general spending growth is occurring at a slower rate now than what the area saw during a strong period of expansion. Year-to-date retail sales are also relatively flat, about half a percent higher than the same period last year.
Employment, though, looks "great" year over year, with a growth rate of about 4.5 percent. The unemployment rate is also down 11.2 percent, Ingham said, and is the lowest it's ever been. This is reflected in other metro areas across the state.
Auto sales also have shown growth. The $41.5 million spent in July is a 24 percent increase from last July, and year-to-date sales are also up about 15 percent. Ingham said he wasn't sure what exactly is driving those numbers, but mentioned the effects of Hurricane Harvey as a potential factor. The dollar volume of residential home sales -- perhaps the best measure of health in that sector -- has also increased. July activity was up almost 8 percent from July last year.
Construction is an area where the numbers have slipped as activity has slowed down after strong growth leading up to last year. There were about 45 percent more single-family housing permits in July compared to a year ago, but year-to-date permits fell about 15 percent from 694 to 588. The value of all construction year-to-date is also down 34.8 percent from last year.
The primary threat to continued economic growth would be a contraction of some sort at the state or national level, Ingham said, as any observable national recession would eventually be felt in Bryan-College Station. Though he feels the state of the national economy "looks pretty good right now" and said tax cuts and regulatory reform have been "outstanding" for stimulating economic growth, Ingham was critical of the Trump administration's trade policy.