The small city of Owensboro, Kentucky, has been extremely lucky in this recession. While the rest of America grapples with historically high unemployment, Owensboro’s job market has emerged relatively unscathed.
Out of 389 metropolitan areas tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s the only city in the nation where the unemployment rate hasn’t risen over the past year. City officials chalk that up to its biggest employers: health care providers, bourbon and tobacco producers, and makers of personal protective equipment.
“We’ve managed it as a community,” Owensboro Mayor Tom Watson told CNN Business on Wednesday.
To date, Watson said the city had about 500 confirmed coronavirus cases, which have led to 53 people being hospitalized and eight deaths.
Whereas national unemployment was about 11% in June, Owensboro’s unemployment rate was just 4.2%. That was down slightly from June 2019, according to a new report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city’s working population of nearly 54,000 had just over 2,200 unemployed people in June, down from 2,499 a year ago.
The city hasn’t been immune to job cuts; it lost about 3,200 jobs from a year ago, according to BLS. Some workers have also dropped out of the labor force, which is partly why the unemployment rate fell — but even so, joblessness there remains well below the rest of the country.
Owensboro’s restaurant and small business communities were forced to furlough and lay off staff in March when government-ordered shutdowns began.
But according to Mayor Watson, the city’s major private employers compete in some of the few industries seeing economic gains during the pandemic and have been hiring as a result.
Owensboro’s largest employer — its hospital, Owensboro Health — has been doing well financially throughout the pandemic, according to the mayor.
The city is also home to bourbon makers Sazerac and O.Z. Tyler. Unsurprisingly, nationwide sales of booze and beer have gone up during the pandemic.
“At a time when tens of millions of people in our country are entering unemployment, we are proud that we have been able to protect and maintain work for our team members and plan to bring 80 additional good paying jobs to Owensboro,” Sazerac spokesperson Amy Preske told the Owensboro Times during union negotiations in March.
Unifirst, a workplace uniform company, also makes personal protective equipment, which has been in high demand and short supply across the nation.
Owensboro also has a tobacco products factory owned by Swedish Match. The Stockholm-based company said it saw surprising double-digit sales growth in the second quarter, fueled by demand for its nicotine patches in the United States.
Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Candance Castlen Brake says the city is also centrally located between some of the nation’s largest population centers, including Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville and Indianapolis, which makes it an optimal distribution hub.
Brake acknowledged that Owensboro’s luck is an anomaly, but says that it wasn’t an accident.
“During the last recession, our economic development team put a large amount of money in our downtown area kicked off by a $40 million grant from the federal government,” Brake said. “The private development that’s occurred downtown because of that has really put us on the map as a community. I think we’ve just been lucky so far that the growth sectors in our community when the pandemic hit were still flourishing and thriving.”
—Annalyn Kurtz contributed reporting.
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