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RECORD EMPLOYMENT BOOSTS RETAIL SALES, HOME-BUILDING; AIRPORT SETS RECORD

 ASHEVILLE, N.C., Jan. 21 /PRNewswire/ -- Record employment in the Asheville MSA has boosted retail sales in the area, while home building is the strongest it's been since 1988.
 Boardings at the Asheville airport set a record last year, and 1992 is expected to be a record year for commercial construction in Buncombe County when year-end numbers are released. Nonresidential construction has increased in Henderson and Haywood counties as well. These results for the three-county area were highlighted today at the Western Perspectives economic briefing by Don J. Harrison, First Union's Asheville regional executive.
 "In our research on Western N.C., we see not only improving numbers but also hear that consumers are much more optimistic -- or at least less uncertain," Harrison said. "Overall, our local economy is showing some relatively strong indicators, despite a national economic recovery that is still somewhat erratic."
 Employment in the Asheville MSA increased in 14 of the last 16 months through November, setting monthly total employment records each month from June to November. November employment was about 90,500, or 1,100 more jobs than the average in 1991. Although the number of manufacturing jobs appears to be down by 300, that void is being filled by temporary agencies, who are reportedly hiring manufacturing workers at a near-record pace.
 November unemployment in Asheville remained at 5 percent, the same as November 1991, because job growth could not keep pace with the number of new workers entering the market. Henderson County's rate increased slightly from 4.5 percent to 4.8 percent, while Haywood's dropped from 7.7 to 6.8 percent -- below the U.S. unadjusted rate of 7.0 percent. Harrison noted that many of the new workers are from out of state.
 "The number of workers who have moved to North Carolina and are being paid unemployment by their old home state soared last year," he said.
 "The number almost doubled in the first nine months and then tripled in October and November. We probably have gained several hundred new out-of-state workers than would be typical here in the past year or so. People see North Carolina and the Asheville area as a good, hopeful place to be, especially in these times."
 A growing employment base also increased retail sales here through the third quarter. Retail sales were up 5.5 percent to $1.4 billion in Buncombe County, up 5.9 percent to $453.9 million in Henderson, and up 3.8 percent to $307.3 million in Haywood. Area retailers also report that holiday sales were strong, although figures for those months are not yet available from the state.
 New-car and truck sales were up 8.9 percent in Henderson County in 1992 to 3,794. Buncombe County registered 7,934 vehicles last year, a 2.7 percent increase over a weak 1991. That's still well below the volume from 1986 to 1989, when vehicle registrations ranged around 10,500 to 11,500. Registrations in Haywood County dropped 2.4 percent last year to 1,883. Despite relatively weak sales volumes, the total value dollar of sales in the three counties increased by $20 million over last year, boosted by a 6 percent increase in the average car price.
 In the construction sector, all three counties permitted the most single-family home permits since 1988, based on reports through October. Permits for the three counties combined were 15.6 percent higher than the previous year.
 "1992 was the year of the first-time home-buyer, most of whom were finally moving out of apartments," Harrison said. "Nationally, almost one of every two buyers was a first-timer. The 47.7 percent rate of first-time home purchases was the highest in 16 years, thanks to low interest rates. Existing home-owners, on the other hand, were wary of trading up in uncertain economic times." Sales of existing homes through the MLS were up almost 26 percent in Hendersonville from May through November and were up 13.4 percent for the year in Asheville.
 Growth in multifamily construction was a pleasant surprise, Harrison noted, with 303 units permitted in Buncombe County through October, the most since 1986. Most of the total was accounted for by permits for 160 units at Carson Creek and about another 100 at Haw Creek Mews.
 In the commercial construction sector, Henderson County increased slightly to $11.5 million through October, while activity in Haywood nearly doubled to $4.2 million. Buncombe County reported $72.4 million through October in new private nonresidential projects permitted or public projects begun. "That was more than twice the 1991 pace and makes 1992 look like the best year in history for commercial construction here," Harrison said. That figure includes tax-supported projects such as the $17 million jail, almost $6 million in water-sewer construction and the $21.5 million federal building.
 Another strength in the area's economy for 1992 was the Asheville Airport, where a record 283,365 passengers boarded last year. That's an 8.3 percent increase over last year, similar to the growth in Charlotte and Wilmington, and much stronger than the airport activity in Spartanburg, Fayetteville or Raleigh.
 Visits to the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway were up 3.3 percent. Although traffic decreased some in the Asheville district because of heavy rain, more than 48 percent of the visitors to the N.C. section were in Buncombe County. Hotel occupancy in the area increased almost a full percentage point through November.
 In its forecast, First Union is calling for:
 -- An even better year for the tourism industry, though not an explosive one, while the end of the airfare wars probably will mean smaller airport increases;
 -- A relative drop in both multifamily and commercial construction, although the actual pace of private commercial construction, excluding tax-supported projects, will be better this year;
 -- Single-family home construction to meet or surpass 1992's level, barring more significant rate increases than are expected now; MLS home sales to rise more this year, as will the average home price;
 -- Possibly an 8-9 percent increase in car, van and light truck sales;
 -- Retail sales to increase 7-8 percent in the first half.
 First Union tracks regional economies in North Carolina on an ongoing basis through its Perspectives program in Charlotte, the Triangle, the Triad and Southeastern North Carolina.
 First Union National Bank of North Carolina is a principal subsidiary of Charlotte-based First Union Corporation (NYSE: FTU FTUpr) and operates 247 offices in more than 140 North Carolina Communities.
 -0- 1/21/93
 /CONTACT: (Media), Sandy Deem of First Union, 704-374-2710, or (home) 704-567-1176/
 (FTU)


CO: First Union Corporation ST: North Carolina IN: FIN SU: ERP

MM -- CH003 -- 7445 01/21/93 13:01 EST
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Date:Jan 21, 1993
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