Thursday, April 22, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic may have devastated the world’s financial situation, but the economic news for Knoxville is coming up roses.

In fact, Knoxville’s forecast for workers calls for growth, growth, and more growth.

Knoxville is ranked third in the nation for job growth since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a study that analyzed more than 400 metropolitan areas across the United States.

The study by 24/7 Wall Street, which describes itself as a “financial news and opinion company” based in Maryland, showed that Knoxville had a 2.8% increase in employment from March 2020 to November 2020.

“The pandemic has inflicted hurt on all of us – some a lot more than others,” Mayor Indya Kincannon said. “But it’s heartening to see evidence, once again, that Knoxville is strong and resilient and that, economically, we’ve weathered the pandemic better than many other communities.”

The study was published in “USA Today” two weeks ago and showed that several Tennessee cities fared well, especially in East Tennessee. Coming in at no. 7 was Morristown, no. 10 was Chattanooga and no. 11 was Cleveland, Tennessee.

 Even as it weathered the pandemic, Knoxville saw an increase in 19,488 jobs, the study showed.

“Our national standing is really a testament to our many great partnerships and selfless team approach when it comes to creating jobs and building community,” Kincannon said. “Most importantly, we’re working to ensure that opportunities are enjoyed equitably.”

Entire sectors of the state’s economy almost completely shut down in March 2020 when Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ordered that only essential workers were supposed to leave home for work.

That situation lasted until Lee began lifting the orders in early May. 

Since then, Tennessee businesses have restarted their operations while having to implement safety measures such as social distancing and mask wearing.

Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, said the bounce back showed not only that Knoxville has a stable economic base but the surrounding region does as well.

“Anytime Knoxville can be listed in the top communities in the country for that, it’s a good thing,” he said. 

During the most volatile periods, logistics services like those provided by Amazon distribution centers performed extremely well and gave the overall economy a strong foundation. 

Internet sales skyrocketed while people were urged to stay home and buy whatever they could from online retailers.

Due to the pandemic, there was also a strong need in the healthcare sector to keep up with those who became sick from COVID-19 while hospitals neared or filled to capacity.

There have been economic casualties from the pamdemic, as well.

For instance, the retail and services industries have suffered severely, and some experts have questioned their ability to ever fully recover.

 Lawyer admits there needs to be some added effort on that front. 

“There’s still a long ways to go,” he said.

One thing the chamber has done is partnered with the Restaurant Recovery Program, Lawyer said. The group provides a form of “boot camp” for some food services workers and many Knoxville businesses are taking advantage of it.

Recent promises from major corporate employers lend even more credence to the expectation that the future is bright for this corner of Appalachia.

CGI, a global tech company, has announced that it will create a $27 million hub in Knoxville. The company plans to start hiring this month and projects that it will add some 300 jobs over the next five years. 

Pilot Company, long a lynchpin of Knoxville economy, announced early this week that it projects adding 120 jobs.

Chris Caldwell, finance director for Knox County, said he’s seen the economy bounce back through the numbers.

When the pandemic started, he had a conversation with Dr. Bill Fox, director for the University of Tennessee’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research. He said Fox told him to prepare for a 20% decrease in sales tax revenue for April, May and June.

He said he thought the figures might even be even lower.

In March, however, sales tax figures showed only a 1.6% decrease from the previous year and April ended with a 8.9% decrease.

“You were like, ‘That’s all, right?’” Caldwell said.

By May, sales tax revenues were going up instead of down. In fact, they increased by 3.6% from the previous fiscal year.

Overall, from March to December, Knox County saw an increase of 6% sales tax from the previous year, which equates to than $18 million in growth.

Caldwell said he thinks there were several factors at work. 

One, the Tennessee legislature changed how sales tax revenue is distributed to local governments.

Also, measures at the national level such as the stimulus package and increased unemployment wages helped, he said.

Other taxes have also bounced back.

Property taxes between March to May were down by 30 percent, Caldwell said, but then shot up  206% by June. By the end of the fiscal year, property taxes were up by 2.5%. In contrast, the growth is usually around 1.5%.

The largest hit to revenue has been from the local hotel/motel tax. Between March and December, those taxes in Knox County were down 41% from the previous year, which adds up to about $2.3 million in revenue.

The largest portion was a 62% decrease in May, but by December the losses were at 21% from the previous year, Caldwell said.

Overall, the numbers weren’t as damning as they could have been.

“I think there’s no doubt Knoxville and Knox County weathered it well,” Caldwell said. 

He credits the good performance to regional economic cornerstones like the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority as well as other large government operations that didn’t see a lot of layoffs.

He said the future also bodes well when an employer such as CGI starts to open up jobs.

“I think we’re a place that is growing,” Caldwell said.

Contact Cliff Hightower at cliffhightower@hardknoxwire.com.

Published March 2, 2021