Recession over yet? Check the backyard

By Susan Nielsen from The Oregonian

Economists say the recession is ending and they’ve got the charts to back it up. They’ll talk about jobless claims and consecutive quarters of growth until you beg for mercy.

That’s why I prefer the more informal and quirky ways that local business leaders use to gauge Oregon’s economic recovery. Lawn chair sales, for example. Not only are they more fun, but they provide a more tangible sense of whether things will ever get better.

Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland, mostly studies traditional data such as shipping volume and air passenger travel to measure the region’s economic health. He says he’ll look for additional signs in 2010 that consumers are feeling confident again: Are they buying cars or tires? What about their other discretionary spending?

“If by spring and summer, Fred Meyer is selling more outdoor furniture,” Wyatt says, “that’s a good sign.”

Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, says his board (which includes such major players as Intel and Nike) discusses the economy constantly. Board members listen to the economists who brief them, Deckert says — but they hang onto every word from Tom Kelly, president of Portland-based Neil Kelly Design/Build Remodeling.

“Tom is a barometer for me,” Deckert says. “Our members ask him, ‘What are customers doing? Are they doing nothing? Are they doing small projects?’ … If Tom says the phone is ringing again, that would change the room more than anything else.”

Actually, Kelly does say the phone is ringing again, finally. Several clients who suspended big projects a year ago have returned, he says. More people are putting out feelers. He’s not convinced of an economic recovery, but he is feeling more optimistic.

“December is shaping up as a pretty good month,” Kelly says. “It’s the first time I could say that all year.”

Brian McCartin, executive vice president of convention and tourism sales for Travel Portland, says he scours the available data about hotel reservations, tourism traffic and passenger travel. He also checks in with his friends who work in tourism-connected jobs, including the musicians who play at events.

“When I see the planes are full, the restaurants are busy and the musicians are working,” McCartin says, “then I’ll know.”

Even the economists themselves will occasionally stick a finger in the local wind. Tim Duy, an economist at the University of Oregon, says he spoke with a foundation repair shop in Eugene that had a recent uptick in business after “zero calls in six months.” That mirrors larger trends, Duy says.

John Tapogna, president of the economic consulting firm EcoNorthwest, says he’s watching Portland for good signs, including more congestion on Interstate 5 and better jobs for a neighbor who works as a general contractor. (He also has a theory about the economic significance of the number of tattoos and piercings on Starbucks baristas, but you’ll need to ask him about that.)

I’ve got my own ways to measure how the Oregon economy is doing. The thickness of the morning newspaper, for example. Or the expression on my husband’s face when we talk about really needing to paint the house.

These measures are not scientific. They’re affected by factors beyond my control, from taxes in Oregon to the debt crisis in Dubai. Yet my indicators are trending in a slight positive direction, tattoos notwithstanding. And it’s a relief to hear that all the phones haven’t forgotten how to ring.

After a long year, these small signs of life feel like good news indeed.

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