BANGOR — Darlene Sullivan spent two years waiting for a chance to return to work.
The 34-year-old mother of three lost her job as assistant manager at the House of Lights when the store closed in 1995. In a sign of the improved economy, Sullivan finally has found the position she wanted, working full time in sales in the electrical department at the recently opened Home Depot.
“The biggest reason I dropped out of the work force was because of the state of the economy,” said the Hermon High School graduate. “I wanted to stay working in lighting. There wasn’t anything there for me.”
Sullivan is not the only person in the Bangor area who returned to the labor force in 1997. The state’s labor statistics show that more than 1,500 new jobs were filled by Bangor-area residents last year, an amount second only to Portland. The growth drove the Bangor unemployment rate down to less than 4 percent, a level not seen since the 1980s.
The dip in the unemployment rate was just one indication that the long-term national economic expansion that began in 1991 continues to echo in the Northeast. But 1997 was particularly strong for the Bangor-area economy. Retail sales were up by an estimated 15 percent. More people flew into the city’s airport. And there was a jump in the volume of real estate sales.
“My own feeling is that we are definitely in a growth phase regionally,” said Robert Ziegelaar, manager of Bangor International Airport. “We think that the kind of growth we saw in 1997 will continue this year.”
Domestic traffic, most of it inbound from New York and Boston, grew by 7 percent during the summer season at BIA, a trend Ziegelaar attributed in great part to an increase in tourism traffic.
After a slow start, real estate brokers in the Bangor area found themselves selling more houses in 1997 than in 1996. According to Earl Black, owner of Mark Stimson Town & Country Real Estate, overall sales were up 9 percent.
“There’s money available, the rates are good, and there’s a good inventory of houses available,” Black said. “I expect another good year in 1998.”
While the better economy translated into an improved job scene in 1997, growth did lead to some tightening of the labor market. Businesspeople complained of difficulty in finding part-time help in particular, and some stores even went so far as to raise their minimum hourly pay.
“It’s a little harder to find the part-time, temporary help,” says Brian Cabell, manager at Bangor’s Wal-Mart store. “They don’t come here knocking at the door anymore.”
In response to the tighter labor market, Wal-Mart raised its minimum pay to $6 an hour from $5.50. At Home Depot, management was not revealing its pay scales but full-time workers such as Darlene Sullivan say they also are finding improvements in their salary and benefit packages from what they received in their former jobs.
Beyond employing more people and paying better wages, the retail sector — together with parts of the service sector — also have made what analysts are calling critical investments in the area. Companies broke ground on several new and expanded stores last year, while institutions such as Eastern Maine Healthcare and St. Joseph Healthcare embarked on major construction and renovation projects.
“Any time we see these capital investments and improvements, it’s a good sign,” said Craig Holland, an analyst with the state Department of Labor. “We’ve had some new buildings. We’ve had some expansions.”
Holland said the area has had mostly slow, incremental growth during the past five years while avoiding the mass layoffs that have plagued traditional manufacturing industries. While the retail and service sectors have led the growth, many of the area’s manufacturers have stabilized their employment levels or even added some workers.
If the national economy stays on track, Holland said he expects most of Maine will continue to grow in 1998 as it did in 1997.
“It’s been an incremental growth, but because it has gone on for such a long period of time, it went by almost unnoticed,” Holland said. “The visible signs are there, though. There are more entry-level positions available. People are working longer hours.”