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The canary in the high rise: Economic indicators for 2007

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With a costly foreign war likely to escalate in troop commitment and violence, a wary truce established among talk-radio listeners and the electoral politics horse race entering full gallop, the national economic forecast could be considered uncertain: no alarming crashes on the horizon but little indication of dramatic improvements either.

The vision is doubly blurry here in Greensboro.

With transportation and logistics not quite the breadwinning industry that was once textiles, the first five years of the new century have seen a 7.3 percent population loss. Meanwhile, North Carolina has overtaken New Jersey as the tenth largest state in the nation. What to make of it?

The local picture in the retail and cultural industries is troubling. Boutique stores on South Elm Street falter even as the census reports retail sales for the nation as stronger than expected in November. The demise of the Flying Anvil, in contrast, mirrors anecdotal reports of live music venues folding even in established music cities like New York and Los Angeles as audiences are siphoned off by forces ranging from video-gaming and MySpace to internet porn.

In lieu of an obvious economic identity we in Greensboro naturally tend to hitch our fate to the star of real estate. But without new people, who’s going to fill the new housing and shop at the stores? The grand vision of the proposed Bellemeade Village condo has evaporated with insufficient interest from buyers, so all eyes are now on Roy Carroll’s Center Pointe tower to carry the day.

For everybody from high-rise powerbrokers to humble homeowners trying to keep up with payments on their half-acre, housing is one of the vital indicators of our general economic health. Without new people to spend money there’s likely to be little wealth creation, beneficial development or opportunity for anyone.

Nationally, a spot of good news came to our attention last week while the overall outlook continues to offer only modest hope.

The good news courtesy of the US Commerce Department: sales of new one-family houses increased 3.4 percent from October to November, which was still 15.3 percent below sales from the same time last year.

The rest comes from San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank vice president Simon Kwan, in a brief published on Dec. 15. While calling housing “a major downside risk in the economy,” Kwan predicts that “as the drag on the economy due to housing gradually disappears, economic growth is expected to pick up slowly in 2007, but seems likely to remain at a below-rate trend of about 2.5 percent.”

We obviously have no economic advice to dispense, but we can propose these collective new year’s resolutions: Contribute your talents to the city, work hard and as much as humanly possible build trust to enhance our social capacity and allow our community to thrive.

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