"Where is our economy heading?" survey

People in Jackson think economic activity in Teton County next month and into June will be much like the sudden downturn of the past two months, and many predict the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic will drag on to winter and into next year.

The 857 respondents to a recent survey forecast that summer business will be down 42%, autumn activity will fall by 26% and even the winter of 2020-21 will be off by 19%.

The survey also found 20% of respondents are living “paycheck to paycheck” and think their income and spending will fall 14% this year compared with 2019. Nine percent said they had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus, and 21% said they were working less and making less as a result.

The survey was done by Jonathan Schechter, a Jackson Town Council member and longtime economic consultant and activist who runs the nonprofit Charture Institute. Results show “people are worried about their health, worried about business ... worried about the community,” Schechter told the News&Guide last week.

He said the survey wasn’t perfectly scientific, but the large number of people taking part gives a good reflection of public opinion and what’s likely to actually happen.

The answers offer a way to “get past this point of inchoate worrying and have some sort of target to aim for,” rather than just sitting around and moping about the crash of the Jackson economy, Schechter said.

People answering also foresaw big trouble for local governments, which depend on sales taxes generated largely by tourism for more than 75% of their budgets. Survey respondents thought local taxable sales this year would fall 39% compared with 2019, with a 67% decrease in the spring, a 48% drop in summer, a 36% decline in autumn and even a drop of 28% next winter.

Taxable sales in the county equaled $1.66 billion in the year that ended in February. The local share of Wyoming’s 4% sales tax amounted to just over $66.33 million.

Schechter’s survey was done online: 81% of those answering were Teton County residents, and another 13% lived in the region. Of the 66% employed full time and 13% part time, 70% worked in the county. Forty percent were business owners or self-employed; 42% worked for another business. Nearly three-quarters had incomes between $50,000 and $200,000 a year. Based on information provided, Schechter concluded that respondents were generally older, better off and less racially diverse than the overall community.

Among other findings:

• 38% of respondents said Jackson would return to “normal” by the end of June. But 40% said July or August, and 23% said not until September or later.

• 50% said Americans won’t feel at ease about taking a driving vacation until July or August; 22% said not even then.

• 40% said Americans won’t be comfortable flying until July or August; more than a quarter will be uneasy into the fall.

Beyond the survey, Schechter recently examined stats about how many people are boarding airplanes in Jackson and the number of businesspeople seeking summer help. Both statistics indicate the coronavirus will hit the local economy hard in coming months.

The numbers were for passenger traffic at Jackson Hole Airport and “help wanted” classified ads appearing in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. Schechter said the two figures are an early indicator of slow business this summer, ahead of the more exact but lagging reports of sales tax collections in Teton County.

Schechter found sudden and huge declines in both numbers.

In March, as the national economy staggered in response to stay-at-home orders, enplanements at Jackson airport fell 45%, even though local ski resorts were open half the month and the economic fallout was just beginning.

Enplanements had been rising sharply, tracking increasing business activity and tax collections. They were up 42% from February 2016 to February 2020, a compounded annual growth rate of 9.1%.

Schechter has used News&Guide classifieds in the past to track business activity and confidence. His look at the March 11 edition of the paper found 698 column inches of “help wanted” ads, the most since May 2019.

But in only a month the inch count fell to 116, down 83% and a drop of 86% over the same week the previous year.

The mix of jobs also was interesting, he said. The fall in job ads showed a strong decline in tourism work such as lodging, restaurants and retail, with more help wanted in the remaining ads for health care, landscaping and maintenance. Tourism “help wanted” ads fell about 99% in the four weeks.

“Businesses have cut back because they don’t know what’s going on,” Schechter said.

The survey method was based on one pioneered by Francis Galton, an English scientist and statistician and a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton experimented at a livestock show by asking about 800 people to guess the weight of an ox. Most people were far off, but Galton showed that averaging a large number of guesses often leads to a fairly accurate answer.

“If you ask enough people to make a guess you can make a pretty good estimate of what’s going to happen,” Schechter said. With the results of his survey, he said, “you can start wrapping your mind around something and start planning, start talking about solving a problem, no matter how big or scary it might be.”

He plans to repeat the survey in mid-May. A complete look at his report can be found at his website, JS4JH.com.

Contact Mark Huffman at Mark@jhnewsandguide.com or 732-5907.

Jennifer Dorsey is chief copy editor and Business section coordinator. She worked in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before moving to the Tetons.

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