Saturday, April 04, 2009

More Charlotte Schadenfreude

Something demographer William Frey said keeps haunting me as I try to figure out how the current economic crisis will inform new pathways of talent migration. People tend to stay put during downturns. If there is enough of a push factor, like there is in Michigan, then we see the kind of exodus we tend to associate with a depression or deep recession. How bad does the situation in Charlotte have to become before that region pushes out more migrants than it attracts?

The Charlotte metro area's February unemployment rate ranked third highest among the nation's 49 largest metropolitan areas. Charlotte's 11.7 percent trailed only the Detroit area (13.6 percent) and Riverside, Calif. (12.2 percent). Charlotte's metro area includes Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus, Anson, Gaston and York counties.

The surging jobless rate in Charlotte and surrounding counties has left economists revising forecasts.

Jimmy Jean of Moody's in West Chester, Pa., earlier predicted the Charlotte area unemployment rate would peak at 11.5 percent. Now he expects it to hit 13.5 percent in spring 2010. That's a result of the region's reliance on finance and construction jobs, two industries rattled by the recession.

“Things are deteriorating much faster than anybody can anticipate,” Jean said.

Albeit a different geographic context, Ontario already pushing people out and staring at its own Rust Belt scenario. Ironically, one of the benefactors from this exodus may be Atlantic Canada:

Signs of relative health in the region aren't confined to the labour market. Retail spending rose in all four Atlantic provinces in January, and the growth over the past year outstrips all other provinces except Saskatchewan, according to Statscan. Consumer confidence is climbing. And the most optimistic businesses in the country these days reside in Newfoundland and Labrador, a Canadian Federation of Independent Business poll showed this month.

The housing market, too, fares better by comparison. House prices in the Atlantic region are expected to rise or hold steady this year, compared to declines in the rest of the country, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. predicts.

"Elsewhere, it was looking like a bubble, but we didn't have that kind of thing here," says Patrick Brannon, research analyst at the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Migration flows reflect the changing tide. The region posted the smallest net outflow last year since 1984, according to the council. (In 2008, a net 500 people left Atlantic Canada to go to other provinces - a far cry from 2006, when a net 13,000 people left the region).

The above reminds me of Chris Briem's demographic analysis of Pittsburgh and its relatively rosy numbers. But is that enough to fuel a boomerang migration from Charlotte to Southwestern PA? That question brings me back to Frey's comment about the tendency to hunker down until the worst is over.

Ireland is expecting its exodus to ramp up as the economy begins to recover. Particularly among soon-to-be college graduates, anticipating emigration is common. So, a return to Pittsburgh from Charlotte may be delayed a bit. But the seed has been planted, or should be more aggressively planted, in hopes of cultivating a larger in-migration stream to the region once the situation begins to improve.

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