Officials hopeful for Chandler’s economic rebound

Image description
Image description
Before the coronavirus pandemic forced thousands of Chandler residents out of work nearly instantly, the city of Chandler saw what experts call “functionally zero” unemployment with an unemployment rate of 3.3%.

April brought the highest unemployment rate on record in Chandler’s recent history with 11.9% of the city’s labor force unemployed—or 18,247 people. The unemployment rate dropped in May to 7.5% and ticked back up again in June to 8.7%, according to data from the Arizona Commerce Authority.

Jim Rounds, economist and owner of Rounds Consulting Group in Tempe, said he believes the city of Chandler is well-positioned for an economic rebound—and may be in a better position than other neighboring cities to recover from the current economic crisis.

“Chandler was experiencing strong growth before the coronavirus,” Rounds said. “After we get through this crisis, I expect Chandler will continue to grow. ... Chandler has a stronger position as it’s related to higher-paying jobs. That means that the city, because of this appropriate focus, has not been negatively impacted as much as some others that are more dependent on tourism, restaurants and bars and not as much as the higher-paying industries.”

The city’s economic development department and the Chandler Chamber of Commerce have worked to attract companies from varied industries to Chandler—especially paying attention to companies rooted in what the city has identified as key industries. These include autonomous vehicle research and development, aviation and aerospace, business and financial services, health care and bioscience, high-tech manufacturing and development, and information technology and software, according to the city.

Rounds said that emphasis could help Chandler recover.

“Chandler is one of the cities I am bullish about,” Rounds said. “Before this current situation, Arizona was a national leader in expansion and growth, and Chandler was leading the way in the state. If we manage this pandemic properly and we continue to invest in things that matter, I’m bullish on Chandler recovering. Chandler will continue to be one of the leaders in the state as we go forward in the next decade if the city keeps an intense focus on high-wage sector jobs.”

Chandler’s recovery

Local experts are hopeful Chandler hitting its unemployment peak in April means the city will continue to see fewer unemployment claims as the weeks and months pass.

“We’ve obviously experienced joblessness and an increase in unemployment,” said Micah Miranda, economic development director with the city of Chandler. But, Miranda said the city is “trending in the right direction.”

Miranda said in Chandler he is seeing higher reports of unemployment from people in the retail, hospitality, recreation and entertainment industries. The city and Chandler Chamber of Commerce have both hosted job fairs to connect those out of work with employers hiring.

Miranda said the unemployment rate across the city was “functionally zero” before the pandemic.

“If you wanted to find a job, regardless of the type, there was opportunity for you,” Miranda said. “Now, our labor force still has opportunities for employment. We just hosted a job fair to help those who are unemployed find opportunities with 15 companies who are hiring for more than 750 positions.”

Before the Great Recession hit the nation between 2007 and 2009, Chandler saw an unemployment rate of 2.7%, according to data from the Arizona Commerce Authority. The city saw its unemployment rate climb at the end of 2008, hitting its highest point at 5.5% in December and continuing to climb into 2009.

The annual average unemployment rate in Chandler in 2009 was 7.1%, and the rate peaked in January 2010 at 8.2%. According to the Arizona Commerce Authority, the unemployment rate began to return to near pre-recession era in 2017 and 2018.

Nationally, the industries hit hardest by unemployment related to the COVID-19 pandemic were hospitality and retail—neither of which are among Chandler’s top employment industries, Miranda said.

According to data from the Maricopa Association of Governments, Chandler reported 12,810 jobs in retail in 2019 and 3,280 in hospitality, tourism and recreation. The city’s top industry in terms of number of jobs was high-tech manufacturing and development with 22,170 jobs in 2019, with business services just behind with 20,350 jobs.

Miranda said high-tech manufacturing is more concerted in Chandler than regionally or across the state.

He said the economic development team focuses on this industry, among others, for business attraction and retention.

“We have a well-rounded and diversified employment base, so if one area is suffering there are others that can make up for it,” Miranda said.

Looking to the future

Rounds said he expects to see—both nationally and locally—things getting worse before they get better.

“Any recovery is going to be gradual,” Rounds said. “We are going to see economic data get worse before it gets better. We had a lot of stimulus money propping up people and businesses. Going forward, we aren’t going to see as much of that. The positive will give way to weaker numbers. In the first half of 2021, we are likely to see much more improvement.”

This time has been challenging for local governments, Rounds said, but he thinks the next fiscal year will be strong. For a city like Chandler, Rounds said he hopes leaders continue to invest to maintain quality infrastructure to retain what they have built.

“The worst thing we can do right now is weaken our strong economic foundation,” Rounds said. “Cities play a crucial role in that economic foundation that businesses rely on. It’s a state issue, but it’s more of a city issue than people think. People forget that cities have a major impact on what happens. Chandler’s is one of the best examples of a city focusing on the future.”

Chandler City Council approved the city’s budget earlier this summer, which saw an overall 2.8% decrease from the previous fiscal year and represented cost-saving measures the city took in the spring when it was clear the coronavirus would have an impact on the city. The city’s final budget also included $29.98 million in state coronavirus relief aid.

The aid will be spent on helping small businesses, struggling nonprofits and improving technology infrastructure for the city, and a portion of the funding will be placed in the city’s reserve fund.

Chandler Chamber of Commerce CEO Terri Kimble said Chandler’s diverse economy is the key to the city’s past success and future success.

“A diversified economy is really important to point out because right now, because of our diverse economy, we have companies that are hiring during the pandemic,” Kimble said. “And it’s not only high-tech jobs, but also those in entry-level factory and manufacturing jobs or call center jobs.”

CVS Health announced June 23 it will take root in a new 101,000-square-foot office building in Chandler. The new location will employ about 500 workers, including health care advocates, care management nurses, social workers, registered dietitians, behavioral health specialists and medical directors.

Kimble said that is just one of many companies in Chandler hiring. She said companies from various industries are looking for employees from all backgrounds and skill levels.

“There is work out there for those people who want to work,” Kimble said. “There have been industries hit hard; I’m not downplaying that by any means. Hospitality and retail were hit hard. ... But there are some real positives out there. We also have to take this day by day as we are returning to what we had before the coronavirus.”