In the eyes of Union County economic-development director Eric Phillips, the nation's sluggish economy remains a glass half full, not half empty.

In the eyes of Union County economic-development director Eric Phillips, the nation's sluggish economy remains a glass half full, not half empty.

Pointing to his county's strong manufacturing base and traditionally low unemployment rate, Phillips said he isn't ready to panic and predicts Union County will weather the current economic storm.

"Every forecast I've seen says 2009 may not be the best year for a lot of businesses," Phillips said. "But I've also heard the first quarter is going to be slow and after that it will pick up."

Phillips said half of Union County's employment base is made up of manufacturing jobs that potentially could be affected by an extended economic downturn.

"We have 25,000 jobs that are dedicated to manufacturing," he said. "When people aren't buying products, that impacts our businesses directly. Our manufacturing sector could definitely be hit by that."

Phillips said Union County has been blessed with strong corporations such as Honda of America and Scotts Miracle-Gro but even benchmark companies aren't immune to economic fluctuations.

"There have been some announcements from Honda about them reducing the number of units they are producing before their fiscal year ends at the end of March," he said. "Of course, if you reduce production it does have some impact on your local economy but the employee base at Honda is spread out through multiple counties so that impact will also be spread out through multiple counties."

Phillips said while the economic downturn has had an impact on both individuals and businesses, that impact, to date, hasn't been widespread in the local business community.

"I know there are people out there who are hurting right now," he said. "But, I haven't heard any major types of announcements about employees being laid off or anything of that nature."

November statistics from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Office of Workforce Development show Union County has Ohio's fourth lowest unemployment. Delaware County leads the way at 4.8 percent followed by Holmes and Mercer counties at 5.3 percent. Union, Lawrence, Washington and Geauga Counties are tied for fourth at 5.5 percent. Van Wert County has the state's highest unemployment rate at 10.1 percent. The Ohio average is 7.3 percent and the national average is 6.7 percent.

"It's not that bad," Phillips said of the county's current unemployment rate. "I remember in the '70s when it was in the teens. We have an unemployment rate in the county that is under 6 percent. It was in the double digits in Union County ion the '70s. I think we have to put that into context and be a little more positive when we look at things."

Phillips said the key to a strong local economy is supporting local businesses.

"We need to continue to support our local businesses," he said. "We need to spend our money locally, keep it local and we will win in the future when we do that."

Phillips said the pace of economic development has slowed recently but noted that isn't all bad news.

"We definitely have seen a slow down on the retail side," he said. "That's not only due in part to this economic slow down, but I think Marysville has become saturated with retail. We have a ton of restaurants now. We have a lot of retail. We still have a higher than normal vacancy rate in our retail sector."

Phillips said that retail vacancy rate has fluctuated recently from 22 to approximately 30 percent, one of the highest rates in central Ohio.

"It's just a result of all of the retail explosion we have seen here over the past four years," he said.

Phillips said he still considered 2008 to be a good year for Union County with the opening of the new $9-million National Guard Armory, business commitments to improvements project in the city's historic Uptown Marysville business district and the construction of the new Lowe's home improvement center to name a few.

"Even with this slow down we have still seen good things happening," he said. "It's not at the rate that it once was but good things are still happening. There is still development and growth happening."

Phillips said that while he remains optimistic, he is also a realist.

"We're blessed to have steady employers but at the same time we have to realize that we may have some bad announcements in the future," he said. "I don't want to say everything is peachy and sunny. There may be some things come down the pike this year that may not be the greatest5 news we want to hear but we have to remember that consistently, over a number of years, Union County has seen a lot of growth. We will get through this and we will see growth again at the rate we have seen before."

jdonahue@thisweeknews.com