Business

Regional Economic Outlook forum speakers see bright future for Tri-Cities

PASCO -- Brian Wesbury is betting the American economy will bounce back soon.

"We'll have a recovery this year," said Wesbury, the keynote speaker Wednesday at the 2010 Regional Economic Outlook forum at TRAC.

Wesbury is the chief economist for First Trust Advisors L.P., a financial services firm in Wheaton, Ill., and author of It's Not As Bad As You Think: Why Capitalism Trumps Fear and the Economy Will Thrive, which was published last year.

A reduction in government spending and an interplay of market forces to spur growth can effectively help the federal government take care of its huge deficit in the next two decades or so, he said.

Federal stimulus money helped the Tri-Cities' economy to create jobs, but taxpayers elsewhere shared the burden, he explained. And every time government spending goes up, unemployment rises, Wesbury said.

The national recession was more a panic reaction than a real crisis, he told about 300 Tri-City business and public leaders at the program sponsored by the Tri-City Development Council.

Nationwide, the housing market bottomed out last February and is on a rebound, he said. He expects interest rates to rise together with real estate prices.

His optimism was shared by a number of local experts who spoke at the forum prior to his presentation. They talked about the Tri-Cities' ongoing growth as it moves away from a Hanford-based economy.

Expansion of health care services in the area since 2000 has created more jobs and helped attract patients from throughout the region, said Davidson Wood, chairman of the Kadlec Health System Board of Directors.

It's a sector that's continuing to grow as Kadlec, Kennewick General Hospital and Lourdes Medical Center invest in newer facilities, said Glen Marshall, chief executive officer of KGH.

A growing local population and a steady influx of retirees into the region is helping the growth of the health care industry, experts say. Retirees contribute about $1 billion annually to the local economy, according to one estimate.

A stable economy and population growth also have helped stabilize the local housing market, said Chris Smith, president of the Tri-City Association of Realtors.

Sales went up from 2,835 homes in 2008 to 3,233 homes in 2009. About 990 home sales were closed in the fourth quarter of last year, thanks in part to the first-time home buyer credit, Smith said.

"This trend looks to continue for the foreseeable future," she said, adding that she expects more sales as the national housing market improves.

Former Washington State University president Lane Rawlins said the long-term economic success of the Tri-Cities will depend on further economic diversification, continued growth of quality agricultural products, and successful assimilation and education of the local Hispanic population.

The Tri-Cities also will need to take care of its infrastructure and make investments in education and transportation, he said.

-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com; Business Beat blog at www.tricityherald.com

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