This past year has been far from standard for most businesses, among waves of COVID-19 and widespread financial assistance from the federal government. Consumers have, on average, had more money but less opportunity to spend that money, and industry experts are saying all that is coming together, making it more difficult to predict what next year may look like.
David J. Zembiec, CEO of Jefferson County Economic Development, said it has been a decent year for industrial development in the region’s most populous county. The expansions planned for local industrial companies are moving along on-pace, but companies locally are facing the same staffing shortages that are being seen nationally.
“The big limiting factor is workforce, which is a national issue as much as it is a local one,” Mr. Zembiec said.
For most of this year, Mr. Zembiec has been stressing that workforce development is the key to economic growth for Jefferson County and the north country at large. He said he and his team have been working with local educational institutions, like BOCES and Jefferson Community College, to develop and connect people with job training programs.
The Jefferson County legislature recently approved the county’s five-year economic development strategy, and Mr. Zembiec said that document includes workforce development strategies as well as various other strategies for making Jefferson County more appealing for businesses.
“Workforce development can be a big focus for us, working together with our partners to address a lot of that,” he said.
Mr. Zembiec said next year is slated to see a lot of industrial development in the metro-Watertown area.
Two major Watertown companies —Roth Industries and Renzi Brothers — are proposing large expansions to their businesses that will see them hire more employees and increase productivity.
A solar panel manufacturing company, Convalt Energy, and its sister company DigiCollect, which creates solar panel management software, are slated to build new facilities in the county’s industrial park in Hounsfield, by the Watertown International Airport. Mr. Zembiec said that development is likely to bring many jobs and investments into the region, and work is expected to start in 2022.
“Within the county, we are optimistic as far as that goes,” he said.
REAL ESTATE AND HOUSING
Property has been a hot commodity across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties this past year, according to Lance Evans, executive officer of both the St. Lawrence Board of Realtors and the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors.
In the 12 months, between Dec. 1, 2020 and Nov. 30, 2021, all three counties saw a record-high number of properties sold, with record-high median prices and record-low average days-on-market. All types of properties, but especially single-family residential properties, are moving quickly and for high prices.
“It’s still a sellers’ market out there,” Mr. Evans said.
He said property managers and Realtors anticipated that 2020 would be a major bust that would take years to build back from, but things didn’t turn out that way in the end.
“The second quarter of 2020, we didn’t do well, but by the third quarter things started picking up again and it hasn’t really dropped off yet,” he said.
He said there seem to be a wide variety of factors that are driving single-family home purchases specifically. The pandemic cut down on opportunities to spend money, whether on entertainment or vacations, so people have more money to afford a down payment. The unstable, beleaguered renters’ market has started to see prices rise as well, which Mr. Evans said can make mortgage payments seem more and more attractive. And finally, with the constant stress of the pandemic and threat of COVID-19 infection looming overhead for many people, the idea of buying a home seems more attractive to many people.
“I think a part of this is people wanting to feel safe, to have a place that is theirs and feels safe,” he said.
Mr. Evans said that this bubble of inflated homebuying is bound to burst eventually, but the market is currently staying strong.
“At the moment, we are seeing a few more pending sales than we have, but days on market numbers are still dropping overall,” he said. “It may look like we don’t have a lot of homes on the market right now, but that’s because they’re moving so quickly.”
OIL AND GAS
Gas prices across the U.S. have spiked significantly this year, increasing by over a dollar a gallon in some areas. According to Elizabeth Carey, director of public relations for AAA Western New York, higher prices at the gas pump can lead to significant shifts in consumer behaviors.
“AAA research shows that when gas tops the $3 a gallon mark, that’s when people really start to change their habits and think twice about their driving habits,” she said.
In mid-December, average gas prices in the north country were above $3.50 per gallon.
Mrs. Carey said people will begin to drive less, purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles, combine errands and limit outings altogether when gas prices get too high.
Gas prices are determined by a complex combination of factors. International relations, shipping trends, demand for oil globally and local regulations and taxes all impact the costs of gas for consumers. Mrs. Carey said it’s difficult to predict what the future might hold for fuel prices, but global markets have already started to lower the value of a barrel of oil thanks to the news of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“When the new COVID variant made the news, oil prices dropped from over $80 a barrel into the 60s and 70s, because there was concern over the global impact of the disease,” Mrs. Carey said.
She said January typically brings the lowest annual fuel prices, because travel demand drops off, winter blend fuel is cheaper to make and the cold weather keeps people inside, driving down demand.
“However, things have not been typical lately,” Mrs. Carey said.
Overall, AAA research indicates that, while most people in the U.S. are unlikely to see the $2-per-gallon prices that came with the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, prices are unlikely to climb much higher in the near future.
High gas prices haven’t necessarily led to a drop in travel altogether, though, Mrs. Carey said.
At the Watertown AAA travel and insurance office, district manager Barbara Park said people are more interested in using a travel agency to plan their vacations than they have been in years past.
“I’ve been in this business almost 40 years, and I saw that pre-pandemic, people wanted to book online, now they’re using a travel advisor,” she said.
Mrs. Park said the uncertainty of travel during the pandemic has made people much more wary of potential changes to their plans, and working with a travel agent helps to alleviate some of that stress.
Mrs. Park said many people likely remember having to cancel their plans in mid-March 2020, spending hours on the phone with hotels, airlines and cruise lines. With a travel agent, customers pay for someone else to handle all the planning details, and should something go wrong, AAA offers 24-hour live service to help work out a solution.
Along with the COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements in place for most international travel, Mrs. Park said now more than ever, demand for travel agents is up.
If people aren’t planning trips in the coming few months, Mrs. Park said they’re planning trips in 2022 or later, when it’s more likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will be controlled better.
The higher gas and oil prices have driven travel costs up as well, but Mrs. Park said that doesn’t seem to discourage many potential travelers.
“There might be a bit of sticker shock in the beginning, but people seem to always end up booking the trip in the end,” she said. “I think a lot of people have picked up the attitude that life is short and they want to travel when they can.”
SALES TAX AND CASH FLOW
In Jefferson County and across the region, government officials are reporting record amounts of sales tax revenue this year. Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray said that 2021’s sales tax income was far better than even 2019’s numbers, which officials are using for comparison as the last normal year on record.
For the second quarter of 2021, between June to August, the county saw $684 million in total taxable sales, up 13% from 2020 and 17% from 2019.
One of the biggest changes in sales tax revenue for Jefferson County, and indeed all local governments, is the amount generated by online sales. In 2020, online sales were made subject to the sales tax rates for the locality where the purchase was made, meaning Jefferson County could finally charge and receive sales tax income from Amazon, Wayfair and other online store purchases made by county residents. That was perfect timing to catch the tax revenue generated by the explosion in online shopping seen since the pandemic began.
“Online sales were the tenth-largest sales tax revenue source, and then it went up to number six in 2020,” Mr. Gray said.
Online sales tax revenue is up 189% from 2019, and up 6.1% from 2020.
Mr. Gray said, while those online sales equal tax revenue for local government, they mean little else for the local economy.
“It’s good, but it’s not good for us in terms of our local economy,” he said.
In 2021’s second quarter, gas stations were the fifth-largest sales tax source, with $47.2 million in taxable sales. Mr. Gray said that number isn’t out of the ordinary, but gas sales are likely to remain high thanks to inflation and the increase in prices at the pump.
Building material sales were also popular in 2021, similar to their popularity in 2020. Mr. Gray said that is likely an indication of still-circulating stimulus money, which many people spent on home improvement projects when there was little else to spend money on.
Overall, Mr. Gray said 2021’s sales tax revenues are likely inflated by pent-up demand for products, services and experiences. While the economy restarted from the COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020 and early 2021, people were spending more and prices were low. Now, as the global supply chain slows down and prices shoot upward, Mr. Gray said it’s expected that sales, and sales tax revenues, will also slow down.
“It’s already starting to level off,” he said.
Inflation may keep prices and revenues higher than previously seen, but the impact of inflation means everyone, including local governments, is going to have to spend more money for the same products and services.
Additionally, federal action may serve to slow down the economy as well.
“The Fed is talking about tapering their buying, which has a tendency to freeze the stock market,” he said. “When people start seeing a lack of growth, or even a decrease, in their retirement accounts they start to get nervous and cautious with their discretionary spending. That’s what we’re anticipating.”