Cover Story: Area unemployment lowest in Watauga Co.

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

BOONE, NC (WBTV) - Job hunters' delight?  Double-digit unemployment across North Carolina.  But one of our local communities remains virtually untouched by the recession.

The now hiring sign is out all the time.

North Carolina's jobless rate is on par with the rest of the country. And that's not good.  Around 10-percent of people in this country are out of work.

Right around 10-percent in Mecklenburg County. Well over 12-percent in Caldwell. And it's in the double digits just about everywhere in between.

But one local county has been spared the recession's wrath:  Watauga County.  A six-point-six percent jobless rate.

People are working.  Companies are thriving.  And businesses are hiring.

How do they do it?  What do they have that we don't have?

Long lines and a tough economy.  It's been the story for the last two years.  But not even the foul weather can take the shine off these words.

"Now Hiring."

"We tend not to spike as much as we do to roll."  Dan Meyer head of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce says Watauga county felt the recession like the rest of the country but here it was a hiccup instead of a stomach ache.

"We have lots of entry level jobs. Our greater problem is underemployment. People who are working at jobs for which they have far more qualifications and education," he said.

Appalachian State University is the biggest employer in this county of 45,000 people.  Next is the Watauga Medical Center the county's regional hospital.  Both industries that fare well in a recession.

Most of the rest of the jobs are tied to either tourism and hospitality or agriculture.  Things like snow skiing, the Christmas tree industry, hotels and restaurants.

"Are there a lot of service jobs around here? Everything is service basically."

Stuart Schmidt, 24 years old and a graduate of ASU has been working at Galileo's a local hangout for the last year and a half.  He's thinking about going back to school.  For now he's content to have a job and glad he's in Boone.

"It probably took me a month after my last job to find another job," he said.

While the rest of the state's dealt with high unemployment, the jobless rate in Watauga never got in the double digits.  Highest was 9 percent in January.

Now it's fallen back down to 6-point-6 percent.

Construction and real estate hit hard here like the rest of the country.  And the county has very little manufacturing which has enabled Watauga to weather the storm.

At family-owned and operated Boone Drug John Stacy laughs at the notion Boone is a job hunters delight.  It's just home to him.

"To me it's just a great place to live in the high country. Great place to work with people. I think that's one reason employment has stayed pretty good here," he said.

Watauga has the sixth lowest unemployment rate in the state last month.  Throughout this economic downturn has consistently had the lowest jobless rate in the Charlotte region.

Areas that have fared well in The Great Recession have been counties with heavy employment of state workers and where universities are like Raleigh - Durham and Boone and counties big in tourism - along the Outer Banks for example.

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