The Manassas area is well-positioned for the post-pandemic recovery, but there will probably still be enormous need for aid to those most economically impacted who’ve missed out on enhanced government assistance.
That’s what Richmond Federal Reserve President Tom Barkin says he took away from two days in Manassas last week.
The trip was one of Barkin’s regular journeys through his district, which extends north to Maryland, south to South Carolina and out to West Virginia.
Barkin met with a number of influential local residents and service providers, saying he tried to understand how different parts of the local economy were working together and how different groups were surviving the pandemic. He spent time speaking with staffers at ACTS, the area’s largest nonprofit. He also met with an Hispanic small business group, representatives of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, and former Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish, who owns Manassas Ice & Fuel Company.
Barkin told InsideNoVa that in some ways, two pandemics have been going on at once in terms of the economic fallout. On the one hand, the federal government has delivered one of the biggest wealth transfers for working-class Americans ever during a recession, in the form of direct stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and, with likely passage this week, a new $3,000 child tax credit.
This undertaking has largely kept household incomes stable or slightly up without any inflationary side effects.
But on the other hand, some people who either don’t qualify or haven’t received government benefits and who may have possibly been barely hanging on financially before the pandemic, were pushed to the brink when businesses began closing last year.
“This is a pretty unprecedented situation we’re in, where the impact of the shutdown hit so directly on the last people in the workforce – the personal contact service workers, who were disproportionately young, and disproportionately women and disproportionately people of color,” Barkin said. “And we’ve thrown a lot of fiscal stimulus at this problem, so the thing I was really trying to understand better [at ACTS] is, where has the fiscal stimulus addressed the issues, and where are the cracks in which stimulus is challenged to go.”
Food insecurity across the region and country is at a recent high, and providers such as ACTS, which assists a wide network of food banks and pantries across Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park, are seeing more need than ever.
“I’d like to think that people aren’t going to go hungry because they have access to these payments, but there’s 20% of people who should be eligible who don’t quite get the payments, so I’m trying to understand, what are the barriers to delivering those benefits?” Barkin said.
Elsewhere in the economy, Barkin said the demand for housing in the Manassas area remains high (though affordability remains an issue) and that the area’s growing network of high-tech manufacturers and data centers have helped to protect it from the biggest impacts of the recession. Both Manassas and Prince William didn’t feel the budget crunch that’s faced areas reliant on heavily-trafficked office property or tourism.
During his time in Manassas, Barkin met with a construction firm that reported on the current state of building in the area.
“Obviously residential is quite strong. Residential sales are quite strong, residential remodels are quite strong. On the commercial side, there’s a lot of strength in industrial still … but also some hospital renovations, those sorts of things,” Barkin said. “Retail has been slower, obviously, a lot has been closed. But I get the sense that there’s some investment starting to come into retail.”
New office construction, though, has been much slower to rebound, Barkin said.
Nobody has a firm understanding of what the office climate or commuting patterns will look like when the pandemic is over, given the way teleworking proliferated for so many over the past year. But Barkin said some businesses are preparing their offices for the return, hopeful that it will be sooner rather than later.
“You’re not seeing new office projects being started,” Barkin said. “But at least what I heard is that there’s a reasonable amount of activity around office remodels, particularly as people start to think about the return to work environment.”