Local economic forecast: partly sunny or mostly cloudy?

As a seemingly endless winter at last shows mercy on local businesses, will Western North Carolina's economic forecast cast a chill over an Appalachian spring? Local sources differ on what the future holds for our local economy.

"I think things are definitely improving. We got hurt because Florida real estate got hammered," says James F. Smith, chief economist at Parsec Financial Management, a local investment firm. "Now all those half-backers can sell their houses in Florida, come here and support all our restaurants, businesses and festivals."

He characterizes the change in the economy as a slow but steady improvement — nothing swift or booming.

"New retail stores are racking up higher sales," he says. "There are new restaurants opening, even though some of my old favorites have closed, like Stovetrotters. But I welcome Tupelo Honey's new south Asheville location. Things are looking up."

But if a local investment officer is bullish, another local has yet to notice much change.

"I don't want to come across as being negative or complaining, but I'd say that our business really hasn't shown an uptick," says Patrick Covington of Accent on Books, a Merrimon Avenue bookstore. Covington said the retail slump could be due to a downer of a winter that dragged on (and on) even as economic conditions shifted.

But shirt-sleeve weather finally arrived, along with what felt like Asheville's first warm weekend since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. "It's hard to go by one day," Covington says. "But we have seen improvement."

Supporting Smith's cheerier take on the WNC economy is Weaverville-based real-estate agent Wallace Shealy.

"My last quarter of 2009 was one of my best quarters ever," he says. "It really didn't even slow down in January or February, except for the snow." Houses that were hard to show under a foot of snow are now moving, Shealy says, noting his selling streak continues.

"My take on that is that is signifies that we have a strong new-home-buyer market, and a strong investment market now," he continues. When asked whether, in his experience, that's historically meant a positive change in the WNC economy, he responded with an emphatic "Yes!"

But local research economist Tom Tveidt of SYNEVA Economics LLC, a private consultancy firm specializing in regional economic analysis, brought some gravity. His recent study of job growth in 370 U.S. metro areas showed "maybe 24" showing growth.

The Asheville metro area wasn't one of them. Tveidt predicts the so-called "new normal" will be hanging around Western N.C. for a while yet.

"What we're gonna see is a turn, but not a dramatic turn," Tveidt says. "Even a huge increase from last year wouldn't catch us up. Last year was horrible. I don't see anything yet that has cropped up to indicate a significant turnaround. We'll continue on a very moderate path."

The economy's so-called "new normal" will be hanging around WNC for a while yet.

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