FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Southern Company Chief Economist Kenneth Shriver says Forsyth County’s business community is “living in a very different experience than other parts of the country.”
Speaking during a Feb. 9 online forum sponsored by the Forsyth County Chamber and the Lanier-Forsyth Rotary Club, Shriver said the current downturn has placed “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” strain on the economy. However, the local outlook for the next year is optimistic, he said.
Shriver outlined his views on the economic recovery ahead for the country, the state and the county as the pandemic continues to stifle growth.
“Basically, we expect economic recovery later this year,” Shriver said. “We’ve got to get past the first quarter, and then we’ll start thinking about what we are watching and what might change next.”
Shriver said Forsyth County is an outlier in that it is likely to see employment grow from 2019 levels through 2021. And though the county’s unemployment rate shot up in the beginning stages of the pandemic, the county has recovered faster than other portions of the country.
Office space a consideration
Nearly a year after state and local governments began responding to the virus, many people are still working remotely. Shriver said many businesses now see how working from home operates, and it will likely have an impact on office demand.
“I think office demand will be muted somewhat, but I still think there is going to be a demand for space,” he said.
While interest has dwindled for some traditional office types, class-A, or top-tier offices are still in high demand, Shriver said. That holds significant weight for Forsyth County, which is actively courting companies and the developers who construct top-grade office buildings.
Recently, Forsyth County Commissioner Todd Levent broached the topic of allowing taller buildings in the county, specifically to attract class-A office space as some companies move away from downtown areas.
With more jobs in the area, the county’s population will continue to increase, and Shriver said any worries about a housing crisis at the outset of the pandemic has not come to fruition. He said Forsyth County has managed home development well, and the market has been “fairly robust” with tight inventory.
What will ‘normal’ bring?
COVID-19 vaccines will be a major component to economic recovery, Shriver said, but when things return to “normal,” questions remain on what the job force will look like. Many jobs can be “turned back on” quickly, but some will need to be recreated.
Shriver said a quick-service restaurant that has shut down its dining room for months might question whether it would be feasible to reopen for indoor dining. If they choose not to, he said, they likely will not need additional workers to man the counters.
Those low-skill workers have been hit hardest by the recession, Shriver said, and a major component to overall economic recovery comes from jobs in the leisure and hospitality industries.
Meanwhile, the debate over increasing the minimum wage for these jobs continues. Shriver said it is important to “look under the hood” in the $15/hour minimum wage proposal. Right now, he said, the percentage of workers receiving minimum wage is near a historic low, and a jump to $12 or $13 an hour would be more in line with previous wage increases.
“The bottom line is, raising the minimum wage actually does lift a whole lot of people out of poverty,” he said. “The question mark is how quick, how fast, how big.”
Another round of stimulus dollars is also on the table. Shriver said additional relief will likely help boost economic recovery in the short term and would help many who are still vulnerable. For those concerned about borrowing from the future, he said stimulus initiatives like this will likely result in tax increases down the road. With that, businesses will be vital in growing the economy effectively to ensure larger amounts of debt can be managed.
Overall, there is optimism about economic recovery, especially at the local level, Shriver said.
“The optimistic thing we’re looking at is, we’ve got a vaccine,” he said. “And we really hope that reinvigorates us as we continue to climb out of this big hole we’re in. It will be a very slow climb out, but we feel good about the rest of the year.”