"Cautious optimism" was the overall forecast for the local economy given Wednesday during the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce's annual Economic Outlook Conference.
Leaders in education, local government, economic development and tourism touted the new jobs, schools, businesses, housing and other markers of growth the area has seen in response to the climbing population, thanks in no small part to enrollment numbers at Texas A&M University. Keynote speaker Jim Gaines, chief economist for the Texas Real Estate Research Center at A&M, told the crowd at the College Station Hilton that he expects 2018's growth pattern will continue into 2019.
Hard data shows that last year was strong economically on the national level, Gaines said, but the period of expansion has many people worried about a recession. He called this a "long shot" with only a 23 percent probability, but acknowledged that the greatest headwinds for 2019 could come from these psychological impacts, as well as the possibility of "counter-productive" political actions.
"The number one thing is if we can avoid a national recession… and it looks like we will," Gaines said, noting that this would likely take major governmental missteps.
The government shutdown has also contributed to this economic wariness heading into this year, Gaines said. It will "start having a real impact on the economy" if the shutdown stretches into the next couple of months. Notably absent from Wednesday's conference was a furloughed U.S. Census Bureau employee who had been scheduled to be a keynote speaker.
Much of the outlook for the College Station-Bryan metropolitan statistical area, which includes Brazos, Robertson and Burleson counties, focused on growth. The population is expected to reach about 264,000 by 2020. That number could climb to about 400,000 in 2050, according to data presented by Gaines.
While the trend of growth at both the university and in non-A&M businesses is expected to continue into 2019, Gaines said to expect a slowdown in sales in the housing market and for prices to keep climbing. The MSA's median home price in 2018 was $223,500. That's projected to increase by about 2.5 percent to $229,000. New single-family home construction will probably remain flat, while multi-family housing development will see a major slowdown, Gaines said.
The College Station-Bryan MSA has the lowest multi-family occupancy rate in the state at 85 percent, and is the only market that saw a rent decline in 2018. Gaines said apartment development had been strong in recent years to accommodate the growing number of Texas A&M students, but most of those projects are now finishing construction. A similar gap in supply and demand can be seen in the local tourism industry, Gaines said, where new hotels built in anticipation of more visitors and attracting conferences and other events aren't yet being filled.
Other speakers at the conference included Chad Wootton, associate vice president of external affairs for the Texas A&M University provost's office; Matt Prochaska, CEO and president of the Brazos Valley Economic Development Corporation; Kindra Fry, president and CEO of Experience Bryan College Station; Dan Rudge, executive director of the Bryan/College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization; Natalie Ruiz, director of economic development for the city of College Station; Joey Dunn, deputy city manager for the city of Bryan; Clark Ealy, superintendent of the College Station school district; and Christie Whitbeck, superintendent of the Bryan school district.