SPOKANE, Wash. — The Inland Northwest’s regional economy is continuing to attract a lot of newcomers, according to Avista Corp. chief economist Grant Forsyth.

About 740,000 people live in the greater Spokane-Kootenai metro area and that figure could rise by nearly 15,000 more residents in 2019 if estimations of economic growth are correct, Forsyth said. He presented this information at Greater Spokane Incorporated's economic forecast on Wednesday.

"We're excited that we're going to a little more robust growth than a typical year, and that's really good for our community as we're looking to increase jobs, increase median household income. Having some growth in our community really helps drive those kinds of outcomes," Marlene Feist a spokesperson for the City of Spokane said.

Forsyth said this influx of people is related to employment growth and relatively low cost of living in the greater metro area. In 2016 through 2018, employment growth in the area was around 2.5 percent, according to Forsyth. This is a full percentage point higher than job growth in the U.S. overall.

Forysth also attributes growth in the Pacific Northwest as a whole – including Washington, Idaho and Oregon – to industry expansion.

“Given the mix of industries in the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Northwest has really outperformed the U.S. as a whole in terms of employment growth and region is beginning to see some of the benefits of that,” he said.

He said these benefits are expanding to both the larger areas, such as the Puget Sound Metro area, as well as Spokane and North Idaho. Some of the industries in the Pacific Northwest that have shown growth are construction as the real estate market has healed, healthcare and professional services like accounting, Forsyth said. Job opportunities also exist for those with advanced skills in the trades, such as electricians.

The cost of living in Spokane and Kootenai Counties is also about 24 to 25 percent cheaper than California’s Bay Area and around 15 percent cheaper than the Puget Sound Metro Area in Western Washington, Forsyth said.

“Most of that cost of living difference between the Bay Area and Puget Sound area is really reflected in housing costs. The price of a gallon of milk is not going to be different between Spokane or Kootenai County and those other metro areas,” Forsyth added.

Despite the low cost of living, home prices are continuing to climb in the Spokane-Kootenai metro area. According to Forsyth, they have increased by an estimated 11 percent in Spokane County and 11.6 percent in Kootenai County in 2018.

"Our vacancy rate is pretty tight for rentals. I can tell you that our housing market of sales was really hot for a while, its cooled a little bit, its still a positive, so we're looking at...how we can accommodate the different kinds of housing that people are looking for, certainly in the city and really throughout the region," Feist said.

The new Amazon fulfillment center coming to Spokane also has the potential to bring more people to the metro area. According to an Associated Press report from July, the Seattle-based company promised to bring more than 1,500 full-time jobs to the city.

The 600,000-square foot center will be built off Geiger Boulevard just south of the Spokane International Airport. At the beginning of June, the site was just wild grass. At the time it was known as "Project Rose," with only speculation it would be an Amazon Warehouse.

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“It may require them [Amazon] to bring in people that are not currently in the metro area to fill those jobs. Again, you will see an expansion of households,” Forsyth said. “If the labor conditions and pay at Amazon are good enough, they may be able to draw people from other employers to fill those positions quickly. It’s still unclear to me how quickly they will be able to do it.”

Overall job growth is expected to continue in 2019 but could slow due to international trade conditions, including trade disputes with China, Forsyth said.

“We are pretty exposed to international trade….and the trade war with China will definitely be a drag on the region,” Forsyth said. “That’s one of the risks I see going into 2019.”