Retail sales and building permits show signs of economic rebound in Bloomington-Normal
Business is booming for many McLean County retailers, even better than pre-pandemic levels.
Patrick Hoban, president and CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, presented data Thursday during a BN By The Numbers event at Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center.
Hoban indicated sales tax revenue in McLean County topped $500,000 for five straight months, from April to August, and came in higher than at any time during 2019. “Right now, after March and April hit, we’ve been spending like crazy,” Hoban said. “I really don’t expect us to slow down.”
McLean County businesses collected $604,400 in sales taxes in April 2021. That's the highest single-month total since at least 2018.
"There’s no reason there should be 4,700 people on unemployment right now with the amount of job openings we have in our community."Patrick Hoban, Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council
Hoban said he is concerned supply chain problems could slow holiday shopping this year, adding higher retail sales reflects the good-paying jobs electric-vehicle maker Rivian and others have added in McLean County.
Hoban said there are other strong signs of an economic rebound for the area, including an increase in commercial building permits that have exceeded 2020 totals. Hoban noted 189 commercial building permits were issued in the county during the first nine months of 2021, compared to 172 all last year.
“We are looking at people catching up that were probably uncertain before the pandemic and making all of the investment now,” Hoban said. “There’s probably also a ripple effect from some of the bigger investments as our new population comes to the area.”
Hoban noted commercial investment in McLean County this year ($123.9 million through the third quarter) falls far short of 2020’s total of $290.8 million, but he noted Rivian and a few major projects accounted for a bulk of that 2020 construction.
Jobs numbers lag
Hoban said employers are still struggling to find workers even after expanded unemployment benefits expired. “In my mind, there’s no reason there should be 4,700 people on unemployment right now with the amount of job openings we have in our community right now,” he said, calling the area employment numbers “baffling.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the area is down about 500 jobs from the August 2020 total of 87,000. Hoban said he suspects many new hires who haven’t settled in McLean County yet aren’t showing up in the data.
“Right now, there’s a ton of people if you go by the hotels that are getting picked up every day (by a tour bus), they are not our residents. They don’t put down the hotel as an address,” Hoban explained. “We assume they are being counted in California’s (job data), maybe Detroit’s, maybe Italy’s for our friends at Ferrero. But that number should definitely be much higher than it is right now.”
Hoban also said it’s likely there’s a substantial lag in the numbers and he plans to contact BLS for an explanation.
Hoban said 100 businesses are currently exploring the Bloomington-Normal area as a place to locate.
He noted a small percentage of these leads ever pan out, but said the EDC typically works on 20 to 40 projects in a typical year, adding manufacturing makes up the largest share of those perspective employers. He said while some are Rivian-related, a majority of them are not.
Hoban said the low cost of doing business in Bloomington-Normal, compared with bigger cities, is a big draw, and cited Illinois’ low cost of energy, especially for manufacturers who may be seeking to automate production.
The latest data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows Illinois ranks best in the upper Midwest for commercial energy prices and has the second-lowest prices for industrial and residential energy prices.
“Low power is a key point because workforce is the highest demand and workforce is a struggle across the nation and right now, the low cost of power is the main driver for anyone looking to do automation to replace the workers,” Hoban said.
He said the trend toward automation started before the pandemic, but has increased since COVID.
“Generation X is much smaller than the (baby) boomers, so (employers) realized pretty fast that automation was going to have to come one way or another. I think the pandemic sped it up and now it’s here to stay.”