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Chamber economic outlook: Abilene facing new reality with opportunities for growth

February 11, 2022Laura Gutschke, Abilene Reporter-News

Abilene’s economic outlook is complicated, but there are reasons to be optimistic in the face of external challenges.

That seemed to be the common thread running through speakers’ comments during the Abilene Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural State of the Community and Economic Outlook luncheon Wednesday at Abilene Christian University’s Hunter Welcome Center.

The program was in partnership with the city of Abilene and Development Corporation of Abilene. Chamber President Doug Peters used questions to prompt remarks from most of the speakers.

The economics of human dignity

Many of the speakers addressed economic development, labor shortages, inflation, education, banking and real estate. Mayor Anthony Williams focused on how the economy is tied to the city’s humanity and the dignity of its people.

He referenced growing up in northwest Abilen,e where the average wage is $9 an hour.

“When a man or woman has a good-paying job, they have a means to be able to make a good living. That person has dignity, and when that person has dignity, the family has dignity. And folks, I believe when more families in our community have that dignity, they will engage,” Williams said.

With infill development, a downtown hotel and other initiatives in recent years, Abilene is making progress, he said.

“Abilene has come a long way. All goes back to the point about answering the question about dignity, about providing an opportunity for more of us,” Williams said. “… I really believe this: Abilene is not good enough for any of us, unless it’s good enough for all of us.”

Abilene ISD staffing challenges

Labor shortages were discussed by several speakers, starting with Abilene ISD Superintendent Dr. David Young, who said the district is in a “staffing crisis.”

AISD started the year with 10 teaching vacancies with zero applications, he said. To overcome the shortage, the district is being more intentional with recruiting, starting with education majors from the city’s three universities who student teach in the district.

“The staffing conundrum is twofold. No. 1, our greatest strength is our community – our employees and our kids – and so how do we retain the very best people that are already members of Team AISD? No. 2, how do we recruit and attract and gather the folks that are not on Team AISD that need to be?,” he said.

The district also is in need of substitutes, maintenance staff, bus drivers and other support staff, he said.

Young encouraged audience members to promote the rewards of an education career and noted there are nontraditional ways for degreed people in other fields to enter the profession.

“So, please help us. We’re all members of the HR department at Abilene ISD,” Young said.

 

Young framed staffing as an auxiliary situation to how the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted student academic achievement.

“There was a gap that existed in education before the pandemic,… and we are hard at work every day to narrow that gap,” Young said.

Solutions to staffing shortages

Echoing Young’s references to a tight labor market was Robert Puls, business development consultant at Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas.

“It’s a worker’s market right now,” Puls said.

Texas’s growing economy is attracting people from across the country. And more people are leaving large cities such as Houston, Dallas and Austin for smaller communities, he said.

“That’s an opportunity for Abilene,” Puls said.

In talking with area business representatives on how they are retaining and attracting employees, two important strategies are evident: pay a competitive wage and create a better working environment.

Training supervisors on communication skills, soliciting employees’ feedback and listening to the feedback are ways to foster a good work environment, he said.

“Train your supervisors on how to be supervisors. Just because he’s a great technician doesn’t mean he’s your best supervisor. You’re going to have to train them,” Puls said.

Keynote speaker Mark Dotzour, who served for 18 years as chief economist of the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, suggested immigration reform as an additional way to fill an estimated 10-11 million job openings in the country.

As some industries try to bring more manufacturing jobs to the United States, “my question is who is going to work there,” Dotzour said.

He said meaningful immigration reform has been ignored by both political parties for 40 to 50 years.

“We need immigrant workers in this country, just like we have since the country was founded in the first place,” Dotzour said. “And I decided that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have absolutely no interest in creating a legal immigration system that could work because that’s a political football.”

County government facing tough financial decisions

Politics also underscored earlier comments by Taylor County Judge Downing Bolls, who said local governments are facing “difficult times.”

“I’m just going to call it out like it is. The state Legislature and local governments are not getting along so well these days, particularly at the county level. There seems to be a move afoot to minimize the impact of county government,” Bolls said.

“We are perpetually being handed unfunded mandates by the state. And, we are having to find ways to pay for those things.”

Bolls, who is not seeking reelection when his term expires Dec. 31, said the county’s budgeting process in the future likely will involve voters weighing in on property tax increases higher than 3.5% to pay for expenditures.

About 50% of the county budget is devoted to public safety, such as the jail, law enforcement, ambulance services and assisting the rural volunteer fire departments.

Because 90% of county residents live in Abilene, those voters may decide that they cannot afford to pay for both local and rural fire services, Bolls said.

Inflation concerns

About 40 years of low inflation are ending, possibly giving way to a new era of higher inflation, said Dotzour during his hour-long talk titled “New Rules, New Realities.”

Inflation is creating higher value in the stock market and household net worth through increased real estate values.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people in America don’t own stocks and don’t own real estate and all they see is higher prices at the grocery store, and they’re not very happy,” Dotzour said.

He expects houses to increase in value, in part because of a shortage of new housing starts and relatively low mortgage interest rates.

A high note

2021 was a record year for Abilene’s economic development initiatives, said Misty Mayo, CEO of the DCOA.

She referenced last year’s announcements of a new Great Lakes Cheese factory in the city, expansion at Primal Pet Group facility and the opening of an Amazon delivery station, among others.

Attracting new companies and helping established ones expand is a team process, she said.

“When we’re talking with companies to attract them to Abilene, yes, it’s important to have quality of life in place. Yes, it’s fantastic that it’s a great place to call home,” Mayo said. “There are so many other factors that companies must consider, and ultimately the cost to doing business is a gigantic consideration.”

“So that’s part of why I believe Texas, specifically Abilene, Texas, is such a great place to relocate your company or expand your existing company.”

Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News.  If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.

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