Civic leaders from various Brazos Valley entities reflected on the region’s COVID-impacted economy Wednesday morning at the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Conference inside the College Station Hilton.
City staff members and elected officials highlighted restaurants and other businesses that opened during the pandemic, cited a strong housing market and noted population growth as positive signs for the local and regional economy, even as presenters also acknowledged the myriad hardships faced by many small businesses, retailers and other industries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Economist Jim Gaines, the conference’s keynote speaker, said economic “trends are most definitely up,” though still in recession — and cautioned that when measuring whether the economy is recovering, month-to-month comparisons or comparing one month to the same month in a volatile 2020 could be misleading.
Statewide and nationally, Gaines said, weekly unemployment claims are considerably lower than in the early months of the pandemic, but still much higher than before the rise of the virus.
Gaines said the severe winter weather and effective shutdown last week in Texas impacted the forecast regarding the first economic quarter of 2021. Looking forward, Gaines anticipated that most jobs will likely be recovered by the end of 2021, with the caveat that “we’ve got to have control of the virus.”
Gaines, whose presentation was prerecorded, was among several speakers to note the pandemic’s particularly harsh effect on service industries.
Chad Wootton, associate vice president for external affairs at Texas A&M’s Office of the Provost, said the university is working on its next freshman class, and received 55,498 applicants for admission, the largest in A&M’s history. He said the university is aiming for a freshman class of approximately 11,500 students.
“We will continue to grow. The student body of Texas — the public high school graduates of Texas — continues to grow, so we will continue to grow,” Wootton said. The university has 71,109 students on its campuses, he said.
An audience member asked Dr. Seth Sullivan, Brazos County’s alternate health authority, to weigh in on what the tailgating and fall football scene might look like.
“I don’t know how this fall is going to look. I don’t think this fall is going to be full-on open. I don’t see that,” Sullivan said. “I think the next fall, we’d be looking at that. We just got through a football season that looked different, and I’m very confident that we’ll have another football season, and I think it’ll be more, but I don’t know to what degree.”
In the conference’s second session, leaders from the cities of Bryan and College Station as well as Brazos County Judge Duane Peters gave attendees updates on capital improvement projects and provided other reflections on the economy.
College Station Director of Economic Development Natalie Ruiz said the city has grown to just shy of 125,000 people, according to population estimates. Ruiz said residential and commercial growth remained strong in 2020 despite the pandemic.
“We added over 500 new single-family homes, and there were some multifamily and attached homes as well,” Ruiz said. She said that approximately $317 million was invested in new construction, above the 10-year average.
Ruiz also spoke on the pandemic’s impacts on retail and service industries.
“When you look at the changes and accommodations that our local and national retailers had to make for COVID, I think those are here to stay,” Ruiz said, lifting up expanded limited contact offerings that began as pandemic-induced necessities.
In their respective presentations, Ruiz and Bryan Deputy City Manager Joey Dunn noted that despite the ongoing pandemic, several new businesses opened in Bryan-College Station last year.
The estimated population in Bryan is 92,210 people, Dunn said, noting that new Census data is not yet available due to the pandemic.
“For the third year in a row, Bryan broke a record for the number of detached, single-family permits. That’s 720 permits. We never thought we’d get 500 permits, and we were surprised, even during a pandemic, that we continued to see that type of growth,” Dunn said.