Experts predict Mid-Columbia economic growth

KENNEWICK -- Experts expect to see slow, steady growth in the Mid-Columbia economy in the future.

But at least one speaker at the 12th annual Tri-Cities Regional Economic Outlook said Wednesday that planned layoffs at Hanford could dampen that growth a bit.

Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist with the Employment Security Department speaking at the half-day session at Three Rivers Convention Center, pointed to signs of recovery in the national economy -- a rise in the gross domestic product, the number of people applying for unemployment benefits leveling off and increased consumer spending and confidence.

"It's slow, steady growth, and we like it," said Paul Roy, president of the Tri-Cities Association of Realtors, of his forecast for the local real estate market.

Roy said things are looking up in the real estate market. Although the recession has made buyers and sellers hypersensitive, he said he thinks this is a good time to buy real estate.

"Interest rates, historically, have never been (lower)," Roy said.

He encouraged people, however, to consider their individual circumstances.

Barbara Johnson, general manager of Columbia Center mall, said the Tri-Cities is one of the few areas in the state that saw an increase in sales tax distributions in 2010.

She expects a 2 to 3 percent increase in retail sales locally this year. She also expects to see more retail business growth.

On a related note, Johnson forecast the price of apparel will go up 3 to 5 percent because retailers cannot continue to hold prices back as they have in the last few years.

Ian Napier, general manager of the Richland and Kennewick Red Lion motels, predicted tourism will continue to grow in the first six months of 2011.