Higgins bullish on economy

In his 20th annual economic forecast, Spokane business prognosticator Shaun O’L. Higgins finally left one hand in his dark blue suit pocket.

His presentation didn’t need the usual hedging of bets delivered in a “on the one hand … and on the other” approach.

Higgins didn’t for a second temper his 2005 forecast, delivered to a group of more than 500 at the annual Spokane Ad Federation lunch.

“I’m not just bullish. I’m longhorn bullish,” Higgins told the gathering at the Spokane Ag Trade Center. The meeting had been billed “A Forecast Full of Dollars,” and Higgins grabbed the podium wearing a cowboy hat and a tin sheriff’s badge.

Higgins, director of marketing and sales for Cowles Publishing Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review, said he foresees a regional economic climate that’s the opposite of a perfect storm. “I can’t call it the perfect calm, because that suggests nothing is happening and that’s not the case,” he said.

Higgins added, “By and large, it will take something extraordinary to derail the train that is the Spokane and North Idaho economy.”

He ran down a list of notable business successes during the past year, including 4,000 jobs created in Spokane; more than 3,000 jobs created in Kootenai County; record home sales and construction; and price hikes for metals, crops and timber commodities.

He challenged the room of advertising and public relations workers to convert that strong performance into marketing campaigns that explain and extol the virtues of the Inland Northwest.

“As a community it’s taken us years to regain that top-of-mind recognition we last had during Expo (‘74), and that we let lag right after,” Higgins said. He urged local agencies to form an advertising cooperative to ensure adequate spending on regional promotion.

Higgins has always dubbed himself an amateur economist. A more accurate term, he’s noted, is economic handicapper.

Still, Higgins on Wednesday said he felt confident that 2005 is just the start of what should be a three-year lift.

“What we’re seeing is a period in which we’ve reached the next critical jumping-off point in the transition from an old economy to a new economy,” he said.

That old economy rests on the mining, agriculture and timber industries. Old or not, those areas have all regained steam, amounting to “gravy” that helps as the area continues to diversify its economy, he added.

His other key predictions for 2005 included: Spokane County gaining 6,100 residents and Kootenai County adding 2,400; Spokane’s retail sales rising by 5 percent and Kootenai County’s by 6 percent; and Spokane gaining about 5,000 jobs this year with Kootenai County up about 2,200 jobs.

Higgins also sees no letup for the booming construction industry. Housing prices, which soared to record levels in both counties, will not slow down, he predicted. Home prices in Kootenai County should increase by 7 to 8 percent in the coming year, and by more than 5 percent in Spokane, he said.

“We’re on a big roll, let’s ride with it,” Higgins said.

“Unless we screw it up somehow,” he said, “we have some very good years ahead.”


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