Tourism job losses cut; expansion by Meritage positive sign

[caption id="attachment_29819" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Job growth of Napa County vs. California from 2001 through 2010. (Click image to enlarge.)"][/caption]

Napa County employment growth is slowly moving back toward the black, led by a bounce last year in wine and other production hiring.

Year-over-year net job growth has been trending upward from the low point of negative 8.4 percent in October 2009 to negative 2.7 percent at the end of 2010, according to analysis of the latest state industry job estimates. The jobless rate averaged 10.9 percent last year, up from 9.5 percent in 2009.

Still, state figures show persisting negative year-over-year net job losses for the county as a whole and most of the major industries. Yet those net losses mask improvements among companies in those sectors, according to Napa County Workforce Investment Board contract analyst Jim Cassio.

"While the numbers may indicate stagnant or maybe negative growth, it does not mean there are no new jobs," Mr. Cassio said.

From 2011 through 2015, total employment growth in the county is expected to slow to 1.2 percent a year from 1.6 percent a year between 2001 and 2008, according to a board report released in September.

The county had an average of 63,875 jobs in 2010, a 2.7 percent decrease, 1,800 positions, from the 2009 average and off 8.5 percent, or nearly 6,000 jobs from the peak in 2008.

The only two major industries in Napa County to have job growth in 2010 were manufacturing, led by the winery production, and professional and business services, although net job cuts slowed dramatically in leisure and hospitality.

The county last had positive job growth in September 2008. That tracks with the "new frugality" that followed the start of the economic recession December 2007 and beginning of the global financial crisis in September 2008, according to the Napa County Workforce Investment Board. That hiccup in consumer spending hit Napa County's luxury-oriented wine and tourism industries hard.

Yet both industries have been providing more job opportunities in recent months.

The county in 2010 had an average of 11,225 manufacturing jobs, mostly in winemaking. The 3 percent net growth over the year, compared with a 9 percent decline in 2009, came from flat to 4.5 percent year-over-year growth starting last February.

Production of wine and other beverages employed an average of 8,100 last year, up 4.3 percent from 2009 but still 1.9 percent below the average in 2008.

The leisure and hospitality industry had an average of 8,617 jobs last year, down just 0.8 percent from 2009, which itself was 6 percent below the high point in 2008.

The industry is part of the county's wine job cluster, which includes farming, suppliers such as barrels and corks and certain sales and marketing jobs.

"People in that cluster have more confidence than before," said Mr. Cassio, who was part of the interviews the workforce investment board conducted with employers in various industries last year.

A key sign of a rally in Napa County's tourism industry were strengthening occupancy and room rates. That led to construction starting in November on The Meritage Resort's $40 million expansion, a project shelved for two years because of the economy.

The hotel room occupancy rate was up 5.7 percentage points to 56.5 percent at the end of 2010 from the year before, according to new figures from Smith Travel Research. The average daily room rate was 6.2 percent higher, and revenue per available room was 12.2 percent better.

"It doesn't take us back to 2008 levels, but it is way better than 2009," said Clay Gregory, president and chief executive officer of the Napa Valley Destination Council.

Hotel managers generally say they are more positive about the outlook for the industry than a year ago, he said.

"People are booking further in advance than two years ago," he said. "It varies by case, but it used to be that visitors were not booking out months in advance."

The professional and business services job sector had an average of 5,733 jobs last year, up 2.5 percent from 2009 but still 6.6 percent below average employment in 2008.

In comparison with Napa County, statewide annual net job growth broke into the black in November and December for the first time in two years, reaching 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, from a depth of negative 7 percent in September 2009.

State job figures for January are set for release March 4.