Colorado's Economic Growth Still Uneven

Mar 3, 2016

Colorado's economic fortunes are often told as a success story. Statewide unemployment was 3.5 percent in December 2015, and, according to the latest Economic Datebook report [pdf] from the Kansas City Federal Reserve, employment growth is 'broad based across industries.'

Yet the Fed's February report also shows that the state's recovery from the recession, and its economy in general, is uneven. The rising tide of Colorado's economy is leaving some boats stranded on the shore. 

Colorado unemployment rates by county as of December 2015.
Credit Kansas City Federal Reserve

Here's the graph that illustrates this issue. Large swaths of the state have employment under 4 percent. The Front Range communities clearly demonstrate this. That makes sense.

Economic growth and population growth on the corridor has been strong. Non-Front Range counties that do well seem to be near or have a resort community -- think Telluride in San Miguel County, or Steamboat Springs in Routt County -- or even Salida, in Chaffee County. And the eastern plains also have low unemployment, for reasons that are perhaps less clear.

Then, there are those doing less well. They include the Arkansas River and San Luis valleys, hard hit by recent drought. There's the extraction-based counties in the western part of the state. Mesa County has never recovered from the hit to natural gas prices. Delta County's lost hundreds of coal mining jobs. Moffat and Rio Blanco counties also have a coal-centered economy.

That higher unemployment matches a downward trend in natural resource jobs. Colorado's mining and logging sector payroll employment was down 3.9 percent for the year in December 2015, according to the Fed report.

Will Colorado's general good economy result in eventual boosts for those counties? Perhaps a look at Pueblo County can give a clue. Pueblo was a vibrant steel town in the mid-20th century. The crash of the industry in 1982 devastated the town.

Over 35 years later, the town has rebranded itself. It offers outdoor amenities, a low cost of living, more days of sun than Denver, and is actively working to diversity its economy. It's even courting the cannabis industry.

Yet wandering through downtown Pueblo can still leave a visitor with a sense of good times now lost. And the county's unemployment rate reflects this: at 5.1 percent, it's not doing nearly as well as its neighbors to the north.

The lesson perhaps is that resource economies bring high paying jobs. When they're gone, even if other sectors move in, it's not a one-to-one replacement -- so recovery, if it is to come, will be a long time in arriving.