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Fri., May 13, 2011, 1:12 p.m.

A modest uptick in Spokane County’s retail sales totals, and what that means

The retail and total sales tax number for Spokane County, for the first quarter, came out and they're at least positive. But the full story is: this is not yet a normal economy.

Data show that Spokane say retail taxes up 2.7% and total sales up 2.1% compared to the first quarter one year ago. The number are actually from November through January 2011, but since the state holds back tax receipts for two months, the data is reported as "first quarter."

Those numbers were cited in a regular Greater Spokane Incorporated email update. The person quoted by GSI on those numbers is Grant Forsyth, an Eastern Washington University economics professor.

Forsyth's take is that the spurt in sales in the traditionally soft first quarter comes from higher gas and fuel costs. It's not something we should celebrate too loudly.

"Until we see a return to regional income growth, taxable sales will be muted," Forsyth said.

Real income growth is the challenge, as employers and small business operators keep a tight lid on costs. It's way too soon to see a rosy tint on the economic horizon, though some numbers are improving.

GSI's "Business Barometer" also cited comments by state Labor Economist Doug Tweedy, who said "The number of people employed in Spokane County has increased for three straight quarters. Everything is recovering slowly and we are not getting the bounce that usually comes after a recession. But the economy is generating jobs in the private sector, which is a positive for the future."

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The Spokesman-Review business team follows economic development in Spokane and the Inland Northwest.