Cheers to the Dr Pepper Museum and thumbs up to Magnolia Market at the Silos. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum also deserves a salute.

Waco’s tourism industry has been in COVID-19-induced free fall, but jobless figures released Friday show it rising to its feet, still unsteady but upright. The Waco-area’s unemployment rate ticked down by half-a-percent between April and May, from 10.5% to 10%.

The local lodging occupancy rate rose to 40.3% in May, up from 29.5% in April, meaning more travelers are stopping to check out the sights and sounds, the recently increasing local spread of the coronavirus notwithstanding. Sobering is the fact the occupancy rate in May a year ago stood at 71.7%, said Carla Pendergraft, who markets the Waco Convention Center, which remains closed.

Waco bested May’s statewide norm of 36.2%, Pendergraft said.

The slight improvement to 10% unemployment came with 3,900 more people employed month over month in the Waco Metropolitan Statistical area, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The number of people with jobs in the “leisure and hospitality” sector increased by an estimated 700 between April and May in the Waco MSA, which includes McLennan and Falls counties, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

The numbers promise to improve in the near future.

Justin Edwards, who manages the Waco Hilton next to the Waco Convention Center, confirmed Friday the Hilton will reopen July 1.

“We are all trying to hire our team members back, but a few have found employment elsewhere during this time and some have moved,” said Edwards, president of the Greater Waco Hotel Lodging Association. “Therefore, there are opportunities in the market for future hoteliers.”

State figures for leisure and hospitality also enjoyed a surge, with total employment in that category up by 176,400, to a little more than 1 million, still a far cry from the nearly 1.4 million in May last year.

“Though the market is still significantly down, we are starting to see a trend of leisure guests returning,” Edwards said by email. “The last two weekends have been up for the market over prior weekends. Though small, it’s still a positive trend. Conventions/groups continue to cancel due to social distancing rules, but September forward is currently looking fair.

“All hotels are operating with minimum staff and services until occupancy becomes consistent, so we ask guests to keep that in mind when traveling.”

Based on current trends, he said he does not expect staffing levels to return to previous levels until early next year.

The Texas Workforce Commission reported the state’s economy added 237,800 nonfarm positions over the past month and saw its nonseasonally adjusted jobless rate slip to 12.7% from 13.1%. Applying seasonal tweaking, the rate stood at an even 13% in May, fractionally below the national rate of 13.3%.

Leisure and hospitality created the lion’s share of new jobs, 176,400, while education and health services added 51,900 positions and the category of trade, transportation and utilities created 20,700 positions.

The Amarillo MSA enjoyed the lowest jobless rate in Texas at 8.5%, followed by Bryan-College Station’s 8.6% and Abilene’s 8.9%, according to the workforce commission.

Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said Friday’s news should not come as a surprise.

“The job numbers today are reflective of the phased reopening of the Texas and Greater Waco economy,” she said by email. “Businesses that have been closed are now reopening, bringing employees back from furlough and creating new opportunities for unfilled positions.

“There are a number of employers that continue to grow their workforce. Looking at the top occupations for help-wanted positions in McLennan County for April and May — registered nurses, retail salespeople and managers and truck drivers lead the openings to be filled.”

The chamber continues to highlight openings at

The city’s diverse industry base should serve it well during its recovery from COVID-19 “and lead to a fast rebound,” said Jennifer Branch, the chamber’s director of existing industries and workforce development.

“We continue to see many organizations, representing various industries, recruit for immediate job openings,” Branch said by email.

Among companies hiring are Neighborly, formerly The Dwyer Group, a Waco-based franchising operation, Branch said. Others are Caterpillar, Texas State Technical College, Clayton Homes, Caritas, Mission Waco, Sonoco, L3Harris Technologies, Diversified Product Development and Behlen Manufacturing.

“The May addition of 237,800 jobs in Texas was the largest of all states and by far the largest Texas has ever seen in a single month, but employment in the state is still 917,800 lower than last May and even further below where it would have been without the pandemic,” said Ray Perryman, a national and regional economist whose business is headquartered in Waco.

The state had shed 1,298,000 jobs in April, over a million more than it gained last month, Perryman said by email.

“We are seeing businesses continue to reopen, and jobs have been added as a result,” he wrote. “The recovery has begun, though it remains to be seen how smooth or steady it will be. … The ongoing high levels of new claims for unemployment suggest that, while the recovery at the national level will likely be more rapid than 2008 (Texas was helped along by an oil boom), it will take about two years to return to 2019 employment levels.”

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