Though growth has slowed, the Tri-Cities should continue to see job gains as it has for the past 20 years.
Labor industry experts spoke optimistically Wednesday about the outlook for the Tri-City economy.
The Tri-Cities may see jobs increase by 2.4 percent a year through 2014, with job growth slowing to 1.6 percent through 2019, state regional labor economist Ajsa Suljic told more than 200 people at the Tri-Cities Regional Economic Outlook.
Health care and social assistance, manufacturing and educational services are expected to lead the anticipated job growth, she said at the annual event sponsored by the Tri-City Development Council.
Health care spending should continue to increase and health care will remain a major economic driver for the Tri-City area, said Rand Wortman, CEO of Kadlec Health Systems.
But employers will continue to struggle with the cost of health insurance and consumers are likely to pay more for insurance that offers less coverage, he said.
Tri-City hospitals already have seen the amount of charity care they provide increase dramatically, Wortman said.
Richland's Kadlec Regional Medical Center provided $1.5 million in care to people who were not billed because they could not afford to pay for it in 2000. That increased to $26 million last year. The actual cost to the hospital was about half that.
Hanford, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, agriculture, wine and health care have helped insulate the local economy, Wortman said.
Wine and agriculture bring money into the area, he said.
"These are good times for agriculture," said Don Sleight, president of AgReserves, the parent company of AgriNorthwest.
The cost of agricultural land has increased, and worldwide food prices are stabilizing because the supply of food is not as tight, Sleight said.
In real estate, the Tri-Cities saw a dip in the number of homes sold in 2011 because of the "fear factor," said Paul Roy, president of the Tri-City Association of Realtors and managing broker for Coldwell Banker Tomlinson Associated Brokers.
Pending Hanford layoffs and national economic news caused consumer confidence to waver, he said.
But home sales picked up in the fall, and the market remained stable. The average price of homes slightly increased, the inventory of homes was steady and there were fewer foreclosures, Roy told the Herald.
Roy said real estate agents are hopeful about this year because a growing population should increase the demand for places for people to live.
Another good sign is that retail sales growth continues to outpace the rest of the state.
Barbara Johnson, general manager of Columbia Center mall, said the cities saw the amount of retail sales taxes climb by about 6 to 12 percent, while Benton and Franklin counties were up by about 19 percent.
Statewide, retail sales tax receipts increased by 2.5 percent, Johnson said.
"We are a retail mecca in our own right," she said.
Johnson said she expects some larger chains will continue to file for bankruptcy or close low-performing stores. But like last year, she expects to see new stores open in the Tri-Cities.
Johnson predicted a 4 percent sales gain locally and another strong holiday shopping season.
"People really came out in droves this year," she said.
Shoppers shouldn't be surprised to see more stores offering the "pre-Black Friday" sales starting Thanksgiving evening, Johnson predicted.
Kathy Moore, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott in Richland, said she expects tourism related to sports events, conventions and leisure to also remain strong this year. But the local hospitality industry is a little unsure what will happen with business travel with the end of federal stimulus dollars at Hanford.
Tourists spend about $350 million each year in the Tri-Cities, including about $48 million in retail and $118 million at restaurants, Moore said.
The Tri-Cities is seen as a desirable market for new hotels, and about four national chains are looking to open hotels here, she said.
"New hotels will definitely come into the market as soon as funding is available," Moore said.