WALLA WALLA -- Shannon Bergevin considers it a good day for the economy when she has to consult her dry-erase board.
The owner of downtown Walla Walla's Express Employment Professionals keeps the staffing agency's list of job openings organized on the glossy white board. For the first time in months something other than the glare from a blank surface is looking back.
In the first tangible sign of economic recovery, the community is experiencing a spike in demand for temporary employment, Bergevin said.
"I'm seeing it in small offices; some medical picking up. Small businesses are starting to pull the trigger on that key position they've been holding off on for the last two years," she said. "Some people have moved away or are leaving and the positions are being filled. I'm seeing some manufacturing pick up."
It's far too early to project whether the uptick will lead to a jump in permanent jobs or spending, officials say. A little less than two weeks ago the state's chief economist told lawmakers to brace for continued hard times. This morning, the Census Bureau reported poverty has grown to its highest level since the 1960s -- bolstered by a recession that left one in seven Americans poor.
This on top of slow job creation in Walla Walla County ¬?-- a total of about 40 jobs this year -- and a drop in retail sales tax collection that has city officials bracing for a round of local government layoffs.
Nevertheless those looking for a positive sign will find cause for celebration in the figures coming from staffing agencies. Sales at Express's North American franchises set back-to-back weekly records in August, according to the latest announcement from the company that specializes in employment solutions.
City officials, the regional labor economist and even Bergevin are quick to say the spike may not be a sign of new jobs on the horizon. But as a leading indicator of recovery, the spike in temporary employment is finally a piece of good news, they say. At the least, some companies are seeing enough demand to necessitate extra manpower. And that means for the time being they're not laying somebody off.
"It's an actual encouraging sign," said Arum Kone, regional labor economist for the Walla Walla market. "How many jobs it represents is hard to say. That's the question: Are there enough jobs created to take care of everybody who has been laid off over the last year?"
One other sign to watch for will be the purchase of major capital equipment -- a hint that demand may be growing for exports, Kone said.
For months, the increase in visible constructions projects and shifting business community has led some to ponder whether Walla Walla had started recovery.
Permit numbers at the city of Walla Walla haven't deviated from the record years in 2007 and 2008, said Development Services Director Kim Lyonnais. But the value has. Lyonnais said the number of construction projects in the community is still strong, but the value of those projects is smaller.
"Economically, we have felt an impact. Activity-wise, the proof is in the pudding," he said.
In downtown Walla Walla, several new businesses are popping up along with relocated or expanding ones. Stationery store Sweetwater Paper & Home opened on First Avenue and Alder Sreet. A frozen yogurt shop is in the works next to that. Up Alder Street, Waitsburg brewery Laht Neppur is expanding with a Walla Walla location. Along Second Avenue, Mackey Vineyards is opening soon, along with a wine retail shop operated by Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman Catie MacIntyre Walker. Trio Vintners opened up the road from them earlier this summer. Farther west on Main Street, CrossRoads Steakhouse relocated from Veterans Memorial Golf Course to the more visible downtown spot previously occupied by 26brix. Plans also continue for a possible wine village in the old Blue Mountain Humane Society Thrift Store building, officials say.
These developments on top of announcements for a new wind-turbine manufacturer in the city, a new plastic bottle manufacturer, the opening of a new restaurant at the Walla Walla Regional Airport, construction of a new multi-story Community Bank off State Route 124, ground-breaking of a new autoplex next to that and more than $11 million in construction projects in College Place.
But are those additions indicative of recovery? That's not a simple question to answer, Kone said. The fact that the business community feels confident enough to invest may be a positive sign. However, the investment itself may not be a huge risk depending on the industry.
Food and beverage sales in Walla Walla County haven't been as affected as traditional retail throughout the recession. Anecdotally, this is a community that enjoys eating out, he said. So the opening of a restaurant may not be as risky as the opening of a soap shop.
And what of the potential loss of government employment, both because of the completion of the Census process and by the potential loss of local government jobs?
Kone said public and private employment must be separated when examining the health of the economy because government tends to be affected during the latter part of a recession rather than the start. The decrease in retail sales tax revenue is reflective of the cutbacks in local spending from months ago versus spending now, he explained.
He said government employment accounts for about 25 percent of the jobs in Walla Walla County, while private employment makes up the rest of the pie.
No one, perhaps, knows the impact to private employment from the recession as well as Bergevin. As longtime clients pulled away during the recession, her own small-business became impacted by the loss of area jobs.
During the recession, her staff of five was reduced to a one-person operation.
The number of clients coming forward for help has allowed her to add one more staff member to her office on downtown's Third Avenue.
"There's just lots of companies that seem to need extra help, whether it's a day or a month or three months," Bergevin said. "The big question is: How long will it last. Nobody knows and nobody's willing to guess."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.