Rain pounded the pavement. A legion of cars puttered in and out of the parking lot. He emerged. Wearing a drenched poncho and clutching a tablet (that, too, had its own poncho) the man we’ll call Max progressed from a walk to a trot to a run.
“I forgot it was raining again,” he said when he finally reached his destination, a gargantuan SUV consuming two parking spaces. “What’s your last name?”
After verifying the last name of the man behind the wheel of the SUV, Max sprinted back to the lobby of the grocery store. Seconds later, he emerged again, this time trudging, not running, as he rolled a giant wheeled basket sagging with groceries. The rain picked up.
Max is a husband, a father, and a devoted employee of a grocery chain with several stores in Collin County. Given his friendly demeanor, his thousand-watt smile and the ease with which he navigates the grocer’s parking lots and electronic ordering system, it would be easy to think that Max has been working for the grocer for years. Yet this rain-soaked May day is his third day on his new job. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached North Texas, Max lost his long-time gig in information technology. The future, which was once populated by a retirement home, college graduation celebrations for his two daughters and an endless amount of uninterrupted time spent devouring mystery novels, now seemed uncertain at best, bleak at worst.
Max is part of a foreboding statistical jump. In March 2020, Collin County’s unemployment rate rose above four percent—a five-year high. This foreboding figure arrived suddenly and after a period of reassuring calm. Just one year ago, in April 2019, that same number dipped to 2.7 percent, its lowest mark in five years. Dig deeper, and the numbers get scarier.
That increase represents a year-over-year change of 28.12 percent. In April, 11,000 Plano residents filed for unemployment. 8,000 Frisco residents did the same. At first brush, both cities seemed well equipped to take a fiscal hit. Business Insider said as much in a story published on March 24. The piece crowned Frisco the most “recession proof” city in the United States, and Plano followed close behind at number three. Both cities bested Austin and Arlington, which, respectively, boast the “music capital” cache and the Dallas Cowboys. Yet, as the economic fallout of COVID-19 continues, and the country nears financial devastation unseen since the Great Depression, the label of “recession proof” might offer little comfort.
Just how recession proof can a city be when it is tested like never before, and what does “recession proof” even mean in a post-pandemic world? While business and civic leaders try to assess the damage done and the damage to come, employees like Max are taking any job possible—or, in many cases, still seeking them—in an effort to weather the current storm and the storms ahead.
"There's not really a plan anymore," Max says. "I mean, this is the plan," he adds, gesturing around the rain-soaked parking lot. "And I'm happy with it. I have a job."
Business Insider’s recession proof story is based on a report by SmartAsset, a tech finance company in New York. The report was a response to the Dow’s late February downturn, a dip tied to global coronavirus fears. SmartAsset wanted to know which parts of the country are best equipped to handle future dips, so they dove into the data on 264 of the country’s largest cities.
Specifically, the company analyzed employment, housing, and social assistance data. The employment category factored in the current unemployment rate, the rate’s changes since 2010, and the rate of labor force participation. The housing category factored in housing costs such as a percentage of income, mortgage delinquency rate, and change in home value since 2010. Lastly, the social assistance category factored in state “rainy day” funds and calculated how many — and how much — households utilize social assistance programs.
Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere was flattered by his city’s number three ranking, but he doesn’t want readers to take too much stock in the story.
“When they wrote that article, they had no idea what a recession with COVID-19 would look like,” he says. “The idea of us being 'recession proof' was fair under normal circumstances, but we’re not going to be spared. This virus is indiscriminate.”
Six days before the Business Insider's story was published, COVID-19 claimed its first life in Collin County. Five days after that, Judge Chris Hill issued a “shelter-in-place order,” shuttering and dramatically limiting most businesses. So the “recession proof” label, announced a day later, was little consolation for civic and corporate leaders in Frisco and Plano. These leaders even take issue with the semantics of the label itself.
“We prefer the term ‘recession resilient,’” says Jason Ford, vice president of the Frisco Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “All cities are subject to some kind of downturn.”
Ford’s focus is on what he calls “major employers,” meaning large corporations with offices in Frisco. That list includes T-Mobile and a smattering of other companies in tech, health and software. Ford is “boundlessly optimistic” that Frisco will emerge from the pandemic with plenty of jobs and big business cache attached, but he admits it will take work to retain Frisco’s status as the kind of city where businesses want to headquarter.
The EDC surveyed about 50 companies which account for 18,000 jobs in Frisco. More than half of those companies responded back, and half of the respondents confirmed they were impacted by the economic downturn and are pursuing some kind of state or federal assistance.
But their ultimate goal is to get their employees back to work. To help those companies, Ford says the EDC and the city plan to practice as much leniency as possible.
“We can change the rules to be more favorable to help businesses open quicker,” he says. “The City is considering a deferral of some fees related to applications for permits, licenses and renewals.”
One example: restaurants.
“Restaurants are highly regulated by state and local permits and licenses,” Ford says. “Instead of putting companies through the traditional process and taking people time to reopen, we can expedite that process so they can open up in days instead of weeks or months.”
Marta Frey, director of Collin County’s Small Business Development Center, says that restaurants have undeniably been hit the hardest.
“Small mom and pop restaurants have no other choice but to close,” she says. “Even restaurants with multiple locations are realizing they have to close down one of their locations and divert resources to the others.”
According to Frey, the best prevention against a storm of this caliber is a rainy day fund of six to eight months. Since most small businesses operate with razor-thin margins for at least the first few years of their existence, a fund of that caliber is often unrealistic for most of them.
“The biggest challenge is the lost revenue,” Frey continues. “How do you make that up when you can’t operate at the level you’re built for? Trying to recover from that is one of the greatest obstacles for any business.”
Frey, who was also the Center’s director from 2007 to 2010, sees shades of the Great Recession in the current economic crisis. If anything, as the IMF predicts, this crisis could be more comparable to the Great Depression.
“The biggest difference [between the two crises] is the unemployment,” Frey says. “People are getting laid off, and the company next door has lost so much money that they’re not hiring, even if they’re a different kind of business. There are no jobs for people to go to.”
All of the business and civic leaders interviewed for this story agreed on one thing: It will be at least a few months — if not much longer — before the full impact of COVID-19 can be assessed. For Plano, it could take much more than a year.
“Property taxes reset December 31, so the impact there won’t be felt until 2021,” Mayor LaRosiliere says. “We have nearly 55 percent of our sales tax and property tax revenue coming from businesses rather than residents. When our economy is good, we will shine, but when something like this happens, we will feel the brunt of it.”
As the mayor points out, the “recession proof” label may be an irrelevant standard by which to measure modern economies.
Ford believes Frisco’s big businesses will recover well, and a Credit Suisse report backs him up. The report says companies in finance and tech are well-positioned to continue their prosperity, as will their employees. Bearing the brunt of an economy in trouble, she says, has a “trickle down” effect to the employees.
“We talk about lost revenue, but we have to remember that this is lost revenue for employees, too,” she says. “These are human beings.”
At Southern Methodist University, Dr. Rocio Madera researches areas like job instability and household income dynamics. Recently, she has spent a lot of time talking to colleagues about what this crisis could mean for the North Texas area. We have a lot of ongoing constructions projects, she notes, which is good news. But the term “recession proof” never comes up—and Madera admits she has never heard of that term before.
“Some cities may be more resilient than others, but even in those cities, the inequality is going to increase.” Ultimately, she says, “no one is ‘recession proof.’”