County Buying Power, 1987-97

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Think of the U.S. consumer market as one big economic pie, with America's 3,135 counties as the pieces. The entire pie grew 40 percent in size between 1987 and 1997, according to inflation-adjusted estimates of after- tax income. But the slice given to (1) Las Vegas (Clark County, NV) grew 172 percent, while the slice for (2) Los Angeles County, CA, increased only 17 percent. Las Vegas's share of the national market grew between 1987 and 1992, then grew again between 1992 and 1997. Los Angeles is a two-time loser.

This map is based on Market Statistics' county-by-county estimates of "Effective Buying Income (EBI)," an exclusive measure of money income (wages and salaries; self-employment income; interest; dividends; rent; royalties; retirement payments; and welfare checks) minus personal tax payments (federal, state, and local income taxes; Social Security and other federal retirement payroll deductions; and residential property taxes). In the nation's hot spots, EBI has grown faster than the national average in both 1987-92 (26 percent) and 1992-97 (12 percent). In "turnaround" counties, EBI growth was slower than the national average in 1987-92, but faster than average in 1992-97. In "slowdown" counties, EBI growth was faster than average in 1987-92, but slower in 1992-97. And in "two-time losers," growth in EBI has been slower than the national average in both periods. Although the map shows every county in the U.S., those mentioned in this article are restricted to the 654 where aggregate EBI exceeded $1 million in 1997.

The hottest counties in the U.S. these days are Rocky Mountain boom towns like (3) Boise (Ada County, ID) and (4) Salt Lake, UT. But the hot list is also dotted with outer-edge suburban counties like (5) Hamilton, IN, north of Indianapolis, and smaller eastern metros like (6) Wilmington, DE (New Castle County). It also includes the biggest downtown of them all, (7) Manhattan (New York County, NY). The other four boroughs of New York City are two-time losers.

While Los Angeles lost share in both periods, buying income in other southern California counties grew faster than the U.S. in 1987-92. But the entire state hit the skids in 1992-97. Only two California counties gained share in both periods, and both were along the Interstate 80 corridor that leads to the nation's center of growth: Nevada. Slowdown counties also include many of the most affluent suburbs. That's why so many upscale retailers in places like (8) Fairfax, VA, have been struggling.

The sharpest turnaround in the country happened in central (9) Houston (Harris County, TX), which lagged slightly behind national growth in 1987-92 (23 percent) but shot ahead in 1992-97 (18 percent). Most of the nation's turnaround counties are in the Ohio Valley and Great Plains, which were the first to recover from the recession of the early 1990s. In (10) Louisville (Jefferson County, KY), growth in EBI was 20 percent in 1987- 92. Although it slowed to 14 percent in 1992-97, that was still faster than the nation as a whole.

Effective Buying Income is a shorthand way of measuring a market's potential, but the numbers may be misleading unless they are viewed in context. For example, EBI more than tripled in (11) Esmeralda County, NV, over the last decade, as jobs were created in aerospace and mining. It also tripled in (12) San Miguel County, CO, as the rich and famous flocked to the ski slopes of Telluride. But Esmeralda has a total population of about 1,500 people, and San Miguel has just over 5,000 permanent residents. These days, the biggest boom towns are in the boondocks. In the real markets, slow growth is the rule.

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