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2009-12-09 / Front Page

Unemployment in county dips slightly

By Katherine Houstoun
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Could Chesterfield be at the beginning of a long, slow crawl toward higher employment? It’s possible. According to a report released by the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) last week, 187 fewer Chesterfield residents registered for unemployment insurance in October than during the previous month. That puts the county’s unemployment rate at 6.6 percent, down from 6.7 percent in September.

“October is usually a good month because the schools are back in session, the harvests are going on and the retailers are starting to build toward the end-of-year holiday season,” said William Mezger, the VEC’s chief economist. “October in the state was the best month so far in 2009.”

Chesterfield’s unemployment rate remains higher than the overall state average, which was 6.3 percent in October, down from 6.6 percent in September. The greater Richmond metropolitan area, which includes Chesterfield County, reported an overall 7.4 percent unemployment rate for October, the ninth-lowest unemployment rate among major metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mezger said the unemployment numbers remain higher in the Richmond region because the area lost more jobs than anywhere else in the state with the shuttering of Circuit City, Qimonda and LandAmerica.

“The Richmond area altogether lost 25,000 jobs in the downturn,” said Mezger. “The problem with this recession is that in most cases, the firms went out of business or no longer exist. So when things start to improve, the workers can’t be called back to their old jobs. New jobs have to be created to re-employ those people, and that hasn't happened yet.”

Some new jobs do appear to be on the horizon, according to Karen Alyward, the development manager for existing, small and minority business for the Chesterfield Economic Development Office. Sabra Dipping Co., a maker of kosher, vegetarian foods like salads and hummus, is entering its first phase of hiring, which will provide jobs for 60 people. Once fully operational, the plant could employ up to 260 people.

“From some of our smaller, existing companies, we're seeing that they’re anticipating being able to add a job or two here and there or bring back some folks that they’ve had to lay off or put on furlough,” added Ayward. “We are starting to see some improvement in the right direction.”

Longer-term employment prospects include the expansion of Fort Lee, which will double in size by 2013, and the construction of a new Rolls Royce plant, which broke ground in October and could eventually employ up to 500 people. While both projects are based in nearby Prince George County, both could end up employing Chesterfield residents.

Additionally, Bon Secours recently announced plans for a new ambulatory care campus at Watkins Centre (see story on page 3) that will bring a projected 100 new jobs to northwest Chesterfield County, and expansions by Maruchan Virginia Inc., a ramen soup and noodles manufacturer, and Hill PHOENIX, a designer and manufacturer of commercial refrigeration systems, are expected to add jobs.

“It’s going to be some time before those jobs come to market to be filled,” cautioned Aylward. “We’re in a very fortunate position to be seeing that sort of activity, but it’s going to take some time.”

For its part, the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce hopes the county’s new commercial zoning-fee holiday, which reduces planning department fees related to commercial, office and industrial projects by $8,000 until July 2010, will ultimately put more people back to work.

“From some of our chamber members, especially those in the development field, we’re hearing that they’re seeing projects being taken off the shelf, dusted off and put back into the system,” said Lenita Gilreath, chamber president. “There's a trickle-down effect from that; a developer pulls out projects, an engineer gets a job, an architect gets a job, an attorney gets a job. We see that as a positive thing that the county has done to help stimulate and bring back jobs.”

Planning Director Kirk Turner has yet to see the fee holiday produce any concrete results, though it has only been in effect since late summer.

“We haven’t seen a tremendous increase in development activity as a result of the reduction in the fees," he said. “My suspicion is the ones that we have seen were ones that were going to come forward anyhow.”

Virginia’s unemployment numbers remain below the national average, which was 10.2 percent in October. The U.S. Labor Department announced last week that the rate dipped to 10 percent in November.

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