Steady as she goes for the local economy

The economy is headed in the right direction, but not fast enough.

Ed Scharlau, the vice chairman of Busey Bank, always has been inclined to view the glass as half full, not empty.

That optimism, which has served him well in his career in the banking business, was on display again this week when he delivered his annual review of the Champaign County economy. He said that the economic numbers, for the most part, confirm what business people tell him is true — that Champaign County's financial standing is "slightly better" than it was a year ago.

"Slightly better" is, of course, better than nothing. But it's not where the county, the state or the nation want to be. Unfortunately, we remain in a slow recovery from a brutal recession that was technically over a couple of years ago.

The problem is that many people, particularly the unemployed and the under-employed, can't tell the difference between the recession and our slow recovery.

Still, people who are optimistic are usually happier than those who adopt a contrary view. So Scharlau's numbers do provide some positive reinforcement.

Retail sales for 2011 were up marginally over the year before, and sales in the automotive industries are up significantly. The local farm economy, thanks to solid increases in the price of corn and soybeans, was strong in 2011 and is expected to remain strong again this year. Crop prices, however, are notoriously unstable, so there's no guarantee current price levels will hold.

Real estate sales remain strong while housing construction was roughly half last year of what it was in 2008, the year the housing bubble burst.

Payrolls at major Champaign County employers, like the University of Illinois and local hospitals and medical facilities, increased in 2011 from the year before.

While the numbers portend better days ahead, there's still an unsettled feeling about the economy, particularly with the price of gasoline over $3.50 a gallon and the state of Illinois effectively bankrupt after years of overspending. In such a situation, it's hard to envision the strong economic rebound that's needed to get people's lives back on track.

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