Right mix for resiliency

Rachel Meers is now the breadwinner of her family, slugging her way through a tough job market for four months since college graduation.


With her newlywed husband still in medical school, she abandoned her quest for a communications job and went into banking.

"I've been looking for a job since January. I had a period of four months when I got discouraged at times. My dad had been getting on me about applying at banks and see where that takes you. So I did," Ms. Meers said.

She has been a teller for Wachovia on Walton Way since the end of September, one of 25 people the bank recently hired. Wachovia is "right sizing" its branch staffing to comply with the higher levels required by its owner, Wells Fargo.

It wasn't the only company in Augusta adding staffers during the summer and fall. Notably, Procter & Gamble and Kellogg's added staffers to handle new product lines.

"We've had losses here, too, so I don't want anybody to think we haven't counted losses, but we've had growth," said Terry Elam, the chairman of the Development Authority of Richmond County. "A lot of it has been funded through Fort Gordon, SRS and a lot of small companies.

"We haven't seen the business closings here that you've seen in other communities."

In measuring against other communities, Augusta's economy this year was more resilient to the economic woes of the country than others. It was better than three-quarters of the largest metro areas, according to the Brookings Institution.

Alan Berube, one of the authors of the Washington, D.C., think tank's quarterly MetroMonitor, said Augusta's shield to the worst of the Great Recession comes through its manufacturing and health care industries, in addition to the high concentration of government employment at the Army post and Savannah River Site.

"You're not going to get massive income or growth out of being a government center when times are good," Mr. Berube said. "But neither are you going to get socked when the economy tumbles,"

Brookings releases MetroMonitor every three months to track the recession and recovery on a metropolitan level. The latest report covers July to September.

Although the area has lost 2.6 percent of its jobs since its pre-recession peak in 2008, the situation was better than in 85 other cities, according to Brookings' rankings on employment.

"We've had big economies get pummeled; we've had small ones get pummeled, too. It has more to do with what these regions actually do," Mr. Berube said. "Chemicals, goods and services sold on the world market where demand has waned -- but not like it has for autos -- you continue to produce things that are in demand, not just domestically. That's been a good thing."

Overall, Augusta ranked 23rd among the nation's 100 largest metro areas, sandwiched between Albuquerque and Baltimore.

Another of the area's stronger categories was the lower level of foreclosures.

Augusta had 1.69 bank-owned foreclosures for every 1,000 households. The metro average is 4.32 homes lost to foreclosure for every 1,000 households.

That is beneficial to the economy by not burdening local banks, said Remer Brinson, the president of Georgia-Carolina Bancshares, the parent company of First Bank of Georgia.

Too many foreclosures make it harder to bring new houses into a market because of the oversupply.

"Everybody's got to wait, and that affect jobs," he said. Fewer foreclosures also mean more stability in housing values because there isn't a glut of houses pushing down prices.

Other highlights of the Augusta entry in MetroMonitor:

- Housing prices: up 0.8 percent from September 2008

- Gross metropolitan product: up 0.8 percent from June

- Unemployment rate: 0.1 percent lower than the national average.

"You didn't grow jobs last quarter. That's better than most. Most metro areas shed jobs. You held steady," Mr. Berube said. "In a relative sense, that's good. But for most families, the recession is over when the economy is adding jobs again. Augusta isn't there quite yet."

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver said he feels the city has a jump on others in regards to recovery.

"Looking ahead to a TEE Center, a new hotel ... we are positioned to move ahead in a hurry next year," he said.

Mr. Copenhaver said he thinks the national exposure from rankings such as MetroMonitor will bring attention and investment to Augusta.

There's one indicator of economic health that wasn't mentioned in MetroMonitor.

"The shopping malls in Atlanta aren't full," Mr. Elam said. "The shopping centers here are,"

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.