Hard times hit late in Mountain West

Fastest-growing region in past decade now feeling nation's pain

WASHINGTON --- A delayed decline in home prices and drops in manufacturing and tourism have caused unemployment in western mountain states to rise faster in the past year than in any other region.


The jobless rate in the eight-state Mountain West region has jumped to 9.3 percent from 8.7 percent a year ago. That's still lower than the 9.6 percent national average. The gap is narrowing with the rest of the nation. The jobs crisis in regions with higher unemployment has mainly stabilized.

The lagging pace represents a sharp turnaround for a region that had been growing at a healthy pace before the recession, and it illustrates how broadly the Great Recession and its aftershocks are affecting the country.

A rush of young people and California transplants helped make the region -- covering ground from New Mexico to Montana -- one of the fastest-growing parts of the country in the past decade. Housing boomed in Boise, Salt Lake City and in Denver.

Thriving cattle farms, wheat crops and copper mines insulated much of the region from the level of layoffs the rest of the country experienced in 2008. While Nevada and Arizona were among those hit hardest when the housing bubble burst, the six other states in the region had milder housing booms and fewer subprime borrowers.

Still, as the economy and home prices soured elsewhere, fewer people were willing or able to move for work. Home sales slumped. Prices fell. Idaho, Colorado and Montana lost thousands of construction jobs. Timber companies lost business.

The states' snow-capped mountains and prized national forests received fewer visitors, and the ones who did arrive after the recession traveled on tighter budgets.

A big blow to Idaho came in early 2009, when technology companies such as chipmaker Micron Technology and Hewlett-Packard Co. laid off thousands of workers. The industry has rebounded, but the jobs haven't come back.

In Idaho, the number of people receiving food stamps has surged.

"We got pulled in a little bit later than the rest of the country," said Larry Swanson, an economist at the University of Montana and the director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Now "we are catching up," he said.

After previous recessions, the region has usually benefited from rebounds in homebuilding, tourism, and other service industries, said Addison Franz, an assistant economist at Moody's Analytics. Those trends haven't helped this time. Consumers around the country are still cautious and housing is still weak.

"You would expect (the region) to catch the wave of recovery, but they haven't been able to this time," she said.