Local residents are finding jobs and buying cars and homes, and more have jobs to generate income, according to the Greater Waco Economic Index for February released Wednesday by Amarillo-based economist Karr Ingham, who prepares a monthly snapshot of local trends.

He said the GWEI reached a record 118 in February, up from 117.1 in January and 116.8 in December. The index was bolstered by good news on the employment front, which shows that 3,400 more people held jobs in February than in the same month last year, and the jobless rate slipped to 4.1 percent from 5.6 percent.

Ingham’s findings were discussed during a news conference Wednesday at the First National Bank of Central Texas. For more than four years, he has prepared the report on behalf of the bank and the Tribune-Herald, with a cross section of local business people gathering to discuss the results.

Housing market

Home building is off to a strong start in 2015, with 32 building permits issued for single-family construction in February, a 45 percent increase from February the previous year. Year-to-date, a total of 72 permits have been secured to build homes in the Greater Waco area.

The Waco area’s housing market has been hitting on all cylinders, and February numbers indicate the trend is continuing.

A total of 186 homes were sold in February, which is 42 percent more than the 131 from a year earlier. The average price for a home sold during the first two months of 2015 stood at $154,300, which is 17 percent more than that for the first two months of last year, Ingham said.

The auto sector continued its steady growth through February, with inflation-adjusted spending on new and used automobiles surging to $38.4 million in February, which is 6.2 percent more than in February of last year. For the year through February, spending has hit $79 million, which is a 3.7 percent increase over last year.

Reinforcements could make Waco’s auto market even more of a force, as crews broke ground Wednesday on an Alfa Romeo and Fiat dealership at State Highway 6 and Bagby Avenue. The 21,000-square-foot dealership on five acres will carry the Allen Samuels name and represents an investment of about $6 million, manager Billy Martin said.

Martin said the dealership likely will open for business in December and will carry about 200 Alfa Romeo, Fiat and used vehicles. Fiat products now sold at the Allen Samuels Waco Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram dealership on West Loop 340 will be relocated to the new store, Martin said.

Meanwhile, Richard Karr, who opened a new Buick, Cadillac and GMC dealership last year on West Loop 340, relocating there from Valley Mills Drive, said the dealership is enjoying the best sales in its history. The collision, service and parts departments also are performing well, he said.

Hotel/motel tax receipts climbed to $184,968 in February, an 8.3 percent jump from the same month last year. Through the first two months, receipts totaled $349,329, which is 11.2 percent more than those for the comparable period in 2014, according to Ingham’s findings.

On a hospitality-related note, Brandon Millares, general manager of the Baylor Club at Baylor University’s new McLane Stadium, said during the news conference that 1,303 people have joined the club. He said Dallas-based ClubCorp, which manages the property, had expected membership to reach 800 by this time.

He added that weddings, galas and other events held in premium areas of the stadium generated more than $1 million in revenue just during the fourth quarter of 2014.

Taxable spending

Ingham reported that inflation-adjusted taxable spending eclipsed a quarter of a billion dollars in February, reaching $259 million, which was 3 percent more than totals for February of last year, which in turn were up 6.6 percent from the previous year. For the first two months, spending is up 3.2 percent from the January-February total of 2014.

Cities for which sales tax is analyzed include Waco, Bellmead, Beverly Hills, Hewitt, Lacy Lakeview, Lorena, McGregor, Robinson, West and Woodway.

Building permits for general construction had a combined value of $27 million in February, 55 percent more than the $17 million a year earlier.

Whitney Richter, marketing and research manager for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said that likely reflects work on several fronts. She mentioned the continued creation of new store space in Central Texas Marketplace and at Lake Air and Valley Mills drives, where the old Richard Karr Motors dealership was demolished.

Payroll employment in the Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes McLennan and Falls counties, totaled 113,100 in February, up from 109,900 in February of 2014. The jobless rate reached 4.1 percent in February, nearly 27 percent less than the 5.6 percent in February a year ago.

“Clearly, the greater Waco metro area economy is off to a running start in 2015, continuing — and expanding — the growth momentum in place at year-end 2014,” Ingham wrote in his summary.

“While the 5 percent rate of growth will almost certainly moderate over the course of the year, there is little reason to suggest the Waco economy will not be a growth economy again in 2015 . . . a 3 percent growth rate in the Greater Waco Economic Index is certainly a reasonable expectation at this point.”

About the Index

The Greater Waco Economic Index is a monthly snapshot of the city’s economic status produced by Amarillo-based economist Karr Ingham. The 19 indicators used include retail sales, auto sales, building permits, average home sale prices, airline enplanements, employment data and other statistics.

The Trib publishes the index in partnership with the First National Bank of Central Texas.

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