COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — As inflation rises and the nation claws out of the COVID pandemic, there is a sharp focus on the economy.

At Thursday’s University of Georgia Economic Outlook luncheon, Columbus business, civic and political leaders got to hear the forecasts from top economists.

The news is a mixed bag.

The Columbus area has about 110,000 jobs. Because of the stability of Fort Benning – which is about 1 in 5 of those jobs – Columbus lost fewer jobs than other parts of the state and nation.

But as jobs are added back, Columbus is seeing slower job growth than the nation and state, says Dr. Jeff Humphries, Director of Economic Forecasting, University of Georgia.

“You are still down around 3,400, 3,500 jobs,” he said. “I think you will recover another 2,000 in 2022. So, full recovery is a story for 2023 in terms of jobs. … You lost fewer jobs, percentage-wise, to the COVID-19 recession than both the state and the nation. But the recovery is slower here.”

What’s driving the Columbus economy? There is no doubt that a white-hot Columbus housing market is one of the economic engines right now.

“If you bought a $200,000 home 12 months ago, you could put it on the market for probably $245,000,” said Reynolds Bickerstaff, broker and owner of Bickerstaff Parham Real Estate. “And it would sell with multiple offers within a week.”

That is a nearly 20 percent increase in home prices year to year.

UGA economist Dr. Jeff Humphries says that number should shrink this year but still expects home values in the Columbus region to appreciate 14 percent.

Heath Schondelmyer, Market President, Synovus, Columbus, says that is reflected in the bank’s business.

“The housing market in Columbus and the surrounding area has been extremely strong,” he said. “Our mortgage revenue over the last two years is at historic all-time levels.”

Bickerstaff says it comes with a caveat.

“That’s a lot of money for the average homeowner whose most valuable asset is that home itself.,” Bickerstaff said. “The challenge is where do you go from there? Where do you move to?”

Another economic driver is the recovery of the hospitality industry. Restaurants and hotels were pounded by the pandemic.

There is a bounce-back happening, but inflation is the worry says RAM Hotels President Rinkesh Patel.

“As we turn the page of the Corona pandemic, one thing is for sure, we are all going to have to accept and live with Coronavirus for some time,” Patel said. “Our business has recovered pretty nicely. The challenge remains on the employment side as well as out cost margins going up because of inflation.”

But Schondelmyer says there is available consumer cash.

“Our deposit balances are up,” he said. “There is a lot of money on the sidelines. And there is just a lot of energy and momentum in Columbus that we are really, really excited to be a part of.”