Thurston Economic Development Council discusses regional economy's ups and downs


While certain economic indicators show Thurston County has been on an upswing since the pandemic, certain issues, such as housing affordability, continue to plague the county. Gene Angel, director of research and evaluation at Thurston County Economic Development Council (EDC), spoke with Tumwater City Council last week to share these updates about the regional economy.

In terms of positives, the county’s economy has rebounded from the pandemic regarding economic vitality indicators, retail sales per capita, and unemployment.

Economic vitality

Thurston EDC uses a so-called economic vitality leading indicators index, which combines varied metrics such as the number of issued residential permits, unemployment, consumer sentiment, stocks of local interest, and US securities yield spreads.

This county’s index plummeted from 116 in 2020 to 80 in 2021. The index has since recovered and is at 115 as of the latest data presented by Angel.

“I'm not here to say that every single person in the county has recovered every single bit that they have lost, but when we bundle up all those metrics together, and we see where we are now versus where we were pre-pandemic, it's an encouraging picture,” Angel said.

Retail sales, unemployment

Retail sales in the past 25 years.
Retail sales in the past 25 years.

For retail sales per capita, Angel reported that all jurisdictions in the county are showing growth. Olympia has the highest retail sales per capita, followed by Tumwater. Angel even noted that the latter city’s retail sales per capita eclipsed Olympia’s sales during the pandemic. Yelm shows the third-highest retail sales per capita, while Lacey trails at fourth.

“That's been the long arc really since the Great Recession. That tells us something about the strategies that we've employed as a region. They're working, we're growing,” Angel said.

Angel also noted that the county’s unemployment rate is 4.7%, which is similar to what the region had pre-pandemic. According to Angel's presentation, the unemployment rate peaked at 16% during the pandemic.

Housing affordability

Housing affordability trends.
Housing affordability trends.

Despite these encouraging indicators, the county still performs badly in terms of housing affordability, specifically for first-time homebuyers.

As of the latest data, the county's housing affordability index is 51, while the state's affordability index is 41. Angel said an index of 100 is achieved when there is parity between salary and housing prices.

“This is a supply-side problem; we have to encourage as much development as possible in as many income brackets as possible,” Angel said, further explaining that they have to meet the increasing demand due to the county’s increasing popularity. He mentioned during the start of his presentation that Thurston is the fastest-growing county along I-5 for the past ten years and will continue to be so for the next ten years.

Business confidence

Meanwhile, the county’s business confidence index continues to be inconsistent. The index measures businesses’ attitudes towards the economy.

The metric tends to fluctuate every year for the county and is currently at 44.9. Angel explained that an index below 50 shows general pessimism, while an index above 50 shows optimism.

Other updates

Angel was accompanied by Heidi McCutcheon, deputy director of Thurston EDC, who also shared updates about the agency’s ongoing initiatives.

The deputy director discussed Tenino’s Southwest Washington Agricultural Business & Innovation Park and the Pacific-Salish Economic Development District, which are being developed.

The economic development district will comprise the counties of Thurston, Mason, Grays Harbor, and Pacific. McCutcheon said that this year, they will work to establish the district's by-laws and articles of incorporation.

A document developed by the members of the future district shows that the district's focus areas will be industry and entrepreneurial networks, infrastructure capacity and modernization, economic opportunities, environmental stewardship and resiliency, and certain priority projects.


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  • Southsoundguy

    Why is this growth good?

    Friday, April 5 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    And for whom is it good?

    Friday, April 5 Report this