Having fun is back in fashion in South Carolina. A bit, at least.
Consumers are feeling better following a grueling recession that slashed household budgets and sucked the fun out of family weekends, date nights and vacations. Retirement funds fell, jobs were lost and paychecks shrank.
A lot of people delayed the fun stuff, said Frank Hefner, a College of Charleston economist. But in recent months, he has seen numerous hotels being built and streets packed with visitors in Charleston, one of the states tourism hot spots. Clearly, somethings going on in terms of visitors.
Of course, not everyone is feeling the fun yet. South Carolinas unemployment rate shrank a measly tenth of a percentage point in February, taking it to a still-high 8.6 percent, according to numbers released Friday by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
Still, thats significantly better than the 11.9 percent high reached in November 2009. And the number of employed people grew to 1.99 million a level not seen since August 2008, just as the recession was starting to cut into South Carolinas economy.
But as the stock market has reached record highs in recent weeks and the housing market has been making solid gains for the past 18 months, people are starting to spend again on things such as going out to dinner or a movie and trips to the beach.
As a result, the leisure and hospitality industry has boosted hiring by 10,800, a 5.36 percent increase over the past year, to more than 212,000, according to the department. Thats more than a third of the net gain in nonfarm employment 30,100 in the state since February 2012.
I am encouraged by the improvement that we are seeing in job growth, said Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wells Fargo bank.
One caveat, he said: Because of concerns about the Affordable Care Act, restaurants and hotels are reducing hours and hiring more part-time workers.
Having more part-time workers and fewer full-time workers allows them to avoid having to pay full costs for health care under the new law in many cases, he said.
That trend, at least in part, accounts for the disproportionate rise in the leisure and hospitality industry nationwide, he said.
(Some restaurant operators) are pretty much making sure nobody works more than 30 hours a week, he said.
Still, there is no doubt that consumers are spending more on fun, Vitner said. For example, Myrtle Beach hotels that had 100 percent occupancy during peak travel weeks before the recession and had dropped back to 70 percent in the worst of times, are now at upper-90 percent levels, he said.
And in Columbia, at the downtown Hilton Hotel, which also features a Ruths Chris Steak House restaurant, business is up this year about 8 percent, said general manager Tony Tam.
Many new restaurants also have opened and hired employees over the past year including Oak Table, an upscale lunch and dinner spot on Main Street, and Smashburger, a growing trendy burger chain on Devine Street near the new Whole Foods.
There is some real growth there, Vitner said.
When disposable income increases, studies show one of the first places people look to spend it is on leisure, said John Durst, South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association executive director.
For the industry to see this kind of bump in jobs at this point in the year is an extremely positive indicator, Durst said. We are very optimistic that the trend is something thats going to continue.
For people who are seeing an increase in income and deciding whether they should add a couple of thousand dollars to a retirement account or take the family to Disney World, theyre choosing Disney, Hefner said.
The recession was such a deep one for so many people, he said, and they are tired of sitting at home.
Beyond leisure and hospitality, many sectors of the states workforce saw strong job gains over the past year. The finance sector has gained 3,300 jobs, a 3.41 percent increase, over the past year. And construction gained 2,500 jobs, a 3.28 percent increase, as home building and construction activity picks up.
While many of those job gains were on the coast South Carolinas prime tourism destination Columbia, Greenville and Spartanburg also saw significant job gains. Of the more than 30,000 total jobs added in the state over the past year, Myrtle Beach and Charleston combined accounted for 7,700. Columbia added 3,400. Rural areas, hardest hit by the recession, saw few job gains.
Still, all but two counties saw unemployment rates decline in February.
Thats a pretty good sign, Hefner said.
Life looks a little better now.
By the numbers
The unemployment rate in South Carolina in February. Lexington County had the lowest unemployment rate in the state, at 6.4 percent. Richland Countys was 7.7 percent, the same as the national rate. Marion County had the highest, at 17.9 percent.
The number of people employed in South Carolina. Thats the highest level since August 2008, just as the Great Recession was beginning to affect the state. The number of unemployed people fell to 187,673.
Job gains in the states leisure and hospitality industry the strongest job gainer between February 2012 and February 2013. Thats more than a third of the net job gain of 30,100 over the one-year period.
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce
Why are we feeling better?
Retirement accounts: The stock market has reached historic highs in the past few weeks, pushing past levels last seen before the Great Recession and restoring many investors retirement accounts.
Housing: The real estate markets in Columbia and South Carolina have made steady gains in the past 18 months. Sales and home building are up and inventory is down, returning housing to more normal levels. Home prices also are beginning to stabilize.
Jobs: South Carolina has the highest employment levels in four and a half years. While some still have not found work, many have landed jobs and added to their household income. As a result, consumers are feeling more confident and spending more on discretionary items.
Gas: While gas prices remain stuck above $3 per gallon, they have been that high so long that drivers have adjusted to them, some say. They are still far from the near-$4 per gallon record levels seen a couple of years ago.
Wild card: Still, there is the wild card of sequestration massive federal spending cuts that started in March. Government workers who will be affected most. Private workers largely have been through the worst of job and pay cuts.
Reporter Roddie Burris contributed.