Medford’s Income Growth Outpaced 91% of US Metros Between 2019 and 2022. What’s Behind the Boom?

The uptick reverses decades of decline, according to Census data.

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Medford Mayor Randy Sparacino wasn’t surprised by his city’s standout income growth.

According to data from the 2022 American Community Survey released in mid-September by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income growth in the Medford metropolitan statistical area increased by 23% during the 2019-2022 cycle, compared to a statewide increase of just 5.7% during the same period.

Income growth in the area — which includes all of Jackson County — was the 37th fastest in the country, outpacing 91% of other U.S. metros. The growth pattern also extended to other Oregon cities, with Bend and Grants Pass also seeing gains.

The city of Medford. Credit: Travel Medford

Sparacino says Medford’s expanding leisure and hospitality sector, as well as an influx of in-migration among retirees and people fleeing more expensive metros, are partly behind the city’s strong income numbers.

“Pretty much all across the service industry, they’re raising their baseline to get people that come through the door and apply for jobs. Locally, we’ve seen a lot of significant expansion in the service industry with regard to additional hotels and restaurants, and they have almost all increased their baseline in annual wages,” Sparacino says. “Years of wildfire smoke are having an impact, but over the course of the last two years, the travel has actually gone up. We’re seeing a recovery in our tourism — a turnaround since the pandemic.”

During the inflationary cycle that began in 2019, leisure and hospitality, trade, transportation and utility workers have consistently received wage gains that have outpaced the declining dollar, with leisure and hospitality jobs seeing the largest gains. In the leisure and hospitality sector, worker compensation grew at an annual pace of 9.1%  between June 2021 and June 2022. Wages have gone up 6.5% in the sector, even after adjusting for inflation.

U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford. Credit: Travel Medford.

Medford Chamber of Commerce president Eli Matthews says the American Community Survey results are the fruit of years of work by the chamber and Travel Medford, the city’s tourism office, which have focused on creating tourism-related projects, including wine tours, children’s sports events and the state’s first-annual major-league cornhole tournament to the city since 2012.

He also mentioned Asante Health Systems, which he says attracts seniors and health care sector jobs to Medford.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the last 10 years in travel and tourism for Oregon. It’s over $15 billion industry, and it’s one of the driving factors down here,” says Matthews. “We’re projecting real good growth year-over-year. Through the pandemic, we were fortunate to get a lot of people who wanted an exodus from the larger cities. But the truth is travel, tourism has always been one of our driving successes here.”

A mural by Colorado artist Yulia Avgustinovich at Vogel Plaza in downtown Medford. Credit: Travel Medford.

Regional state economist Guy Tauer, who conducts workforce and economic research for Coos, Curry, Jackson and Josephine County for the Oregon Employment Department, tells Oregon Business that Medford’s eye-catching survey results may contain a lot of statistical noise.

“This survey is not similar to a Census where it’s counting everyone. When the sample sizes are larger, the margin of error is smaller,” says Tauer, who adds the Medford income will need to show continued growth and expansion for him to consider the upward growth a real trend. Purchasing power in Medford, for example, rose 6.7% according to the survey, but the results were not outside the survey’s margin of error. The survey also excluded proprietary income received by self-employed individuals and unincorporated business owners.

“I would say this is headed in the right direction, I just think you just have to read the survey with caution. If you’re trying to get to the bottom of ‘why did incomes go up?’ It’s hard to say,” says Tauer.

Tauer says the Medford MSA’s growth numbers fell back to earth when adjusted for inflation, but still showed some statistically significant signs of growth during the 2019-2022 cycle. Average earnings in the Medford MSA increased 3.7% even after adjusting for inflation while inequality levels (calculated by the GINI coefficient) held steady, and remained lower than the national average. The amount of households with income between $100,000 and $149,999 also jumped from 14.9% to 18.4%, all statistically significant gains, according to Tauer.

In his article analyzing the survey data, Oregon state economist Josh Lehner pointed out that the positive income gains in southern Oregon have reversed a decade of decline. Over the last 10  years, regional growth in southern Oregon didn’t pick up until mid-to-late cycle, and the ground lost during the 2008 financial crisis housing that was not fully regained by the time the pandemic hit. Using a multi-year average, Lehner found “Medford’s relative income position compared to the statewide numbers hasn’t been this strong since the mid-2000s.”

With eight new hotels currently in development in the city and surrounding area, the Rogue X community center to host indoor sporting events slated to open this year, and steady population growth from people coming to the Medford MSA, Matthews says the city is well-positioned to continue its growth into the future.

“Compared to California, it’s far easier to have that quality of life, and your dollar will go a lot farther in southern Oregon. Our median home price right now is $401,000. In California, it’s literally triple that. There are over 220 days of sunshine, and you literally drive 20 minutes and you’re out enjoying all sorts of beautiful nature, rivers and lakes,” says Matthews, who adds that the chamber is still planning ways to grow. “The one thing we’re lacking here in Medford is a spot to hold larger, formal, conferences and meetings. So that’s one of our other goals that we’re going to achieve here shortly.”