HELENA — Economists projected Lewis and Clark County to see slow but consistent growth this year, with cuts to government spending felt more in Helena than other areas of the state.
That’s not unusual for the city to hear, as it’s consistently ranked as one of the top small communities in the country in economic strength.
“I always say that we didn’t participate in the recession,” said Cathy Burwell, President of the Helena Chamber of Commerce.
Employment levels have increased throughout the year, and Helena’s real estate market appears to have made significant gains. Business growth may be more of a mixed bag.
Burwell said some retail sectors, such as automotive sales, seem to be doing well, but the retail industry has room to improve.
In particular, she said anecdotal reports from the start of the holiday shopping season weren’t very encouraging. “I don’t think it’s as good as we hope right now,” she said.
Burwell said Helena’s ailing mall also results in some shopping “leakage” out of town.
“I feel for them,” Burwell said of current mall tenants, “because that’s just a shame.”
She hopes another large retailer can fill the void left, whether in the mall, downtown as an “anchor store,” or elsewhere.
Commercial building permits in 2013 may drop over amounts in recent years. Through November, 176 building permits were issued worth $37.4 million. 2012 permits were valued at $49.2 million.
There’s plenty of bright spots, Burwell said, including new openings in the Skyway Regional Shopping Center at the Interstate 15 and Custer Avenue interchange, expansion of the Cinemark theater in the Great Northern and ongoing construction of a Super One grocery store in the north part of town.
Burwell said the new Custer highway interchange is been an important boost to that area. “There’s quite a lot of room for development there,” she said.
Lewis and Clark County’s unemployment rate dropped throughout the year to 3.8 percent in October — the lowest it’s been in five years, since November 2008 and a point better than the statewide rate.
Trade professions like carpenters and electricians are in high demand by clients at A to Z Staffing job service, said vice president Anna Kazmierowski. “I think it has changed from last year,” she said.
A to Z fills primarily office and construction positions in Helena and around the state, but Kazmierowski said the kinds of businesses that are seeking help from an employment agency has been widening.
“It’s really different. A lot of companies turn to employment agencies for assistance,” she said. “It’s just difficult for everybody to find people.”
With the labor market tightening, Burwell said she hopes the unemployment rate doesn’t drop too much further. An increasing number of businesses are looking to attract employees from their competitors, she said.
“That’s a challenge for us here,” she said.
Meanwhile, Helena Food Share distributed an average of 100,000 pound of food each month in 2013, up 25 percent more than last year.
Nearly 1,000 new households were served this year, according to Communications Director Dana Friede.
The residential real estate market has proven to be a bright spot for the Helena area as the number of sales and price levels have risen.
Home sales in the past 12 months have risen by over seven percent from the prior 12-month period, market data from Moore Appraisal Firm shows.
“Most everyone I’ve talked to has reported increased sales, a busy market,” Shaun Moore said. “Even in the months that seemed to be slower, it seemed to be more steady.”
Of the more than 800 homes sold, one of seven were considered new construction, he said. The price for vacant land is holding steady, but much more of it is selling.
“In past years we’re been really oversupplied with the amount of land that we’ve had. We started to see a correction of that over the past couple years,” Moore said.
More than 180 lots sold during the most recent 12-month period, up from only 102 the year before. Moore said it indicates that local contractors are more confident in the market.
Prices are also on track to exceed median values in each of the past five years. The median sale price during the past 12 months has approached $210,000, according to Moore’s data.
However, he said the market still shows some resistance toward higher-end homes.
The numbers show evidence of the Helena real estate market’s constant recovery from the recession, Moore said.
“I think the housing market is coming back strong,” Burwell said. “I think that things are back on track in Helena.”