In a year in which the nation’s economy was nearly ground to a halt by a nasty virus, Bowling Green and Warren County saw little evidence that the coronavirus pandemic was making the local economy sick.
Year-end numbers on construction activity suggest that this region’s economy had been vaccinated against the slowdown.
“I probably never would’ve thought, given the pandemic, that we’d have the kind of year we had,” said Ben Peterson, executive director of the City-County Planning Commission of Warren County.
As with the coronavirus spread, the numbers don’t lie.
Despite having to meet via Zoom video conference for most of the year, the planning commission continued the hyper-activity it has seen in recent years. In fact, the number of building permit reviews and single-family lot approvals handled by the planning commission in 2020 were higher than 2019 totals.
Total applications, including zoning changes, variances and conditional use permits, were the second-highest of the past couple of decades, behind only the record year of 2017.
“It was an interesting year, trying to manage all that activity,” Peterson said. “Our meetings have mostly been electronic since March. People in general have been good to work with and understanding of the situation.”
Like the planning commission, Warren County Public Works saw little slowdown in 2020.
In fact, county Public Works Director Josh Moore said building permit applications jumped from 2019’s total of 1,052 to 1,248 in 2020. Electrical applications grew even more, jumping from 825 in 2019 to 1,116 last year.
“For us, things never really slowed down,” Moore said. “There were a couple of months right at the beginning (of the pandemic) when it slowed down a little, but we made up for it in the summer.”
Peterson said the strong numbers are “a testament to our strong local economy, even through COVID-19.”
Moore agrees, but he said restrictions of the pandemic may have contributed to some of the increased activity.
“We did have permits for a lot of swimming pools and decks,” he said. “Some people did that instead of taking vacations.”
But it wasn’t only additions and renovations driving the building activity. City of Bowling Green Director of Neighborhood and Community Services Brent Childers said applications for new single-family residential construction were the “big driver” for the city’s increased activity.
“We saw permits for 269 new single-family houses,” Childers said, noting that the previous year’s figure was 217. “That’s what has really kept us busy. I was anticipating more of a slowdown back in March, but we actually saw an acceleration on the residential side. The pandemic did hurt commercial investment a little bit.”
Childers pointed out that segments of commercial construction hardest hit by the pandemic, like restaurants and retail, saw a big drop in construction activity.
“We had $135 million worth of commercial construction, which is probably a little below average for the past several years,” Childers said.
Another trend that Childers detected is a move away from apartment building and toward building single-family houses. Those 269 permits for single-family houses last year surpassed the 128 multi-family units that were permitted.
“For several years, multi-family has exceeded single-family,” he said. “We’re seeing multi-family tail off.”
That is borne out by the countywide planning commission numbers.
Statistics provided by Peterson show the number of single-family lots approved by the planning commission jumped from 591 in 2019 to 823 in 2020 while multi-family units approved plummeted from 1,413 in 2019 to 259 last year.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth in single-family homes,” he said.
Based on activity at the first planning commission meeting of 2021, residential building may continue to grow this year.
The commission approved on Jan. 7 a rezoning expected to lead to 168 apartments and 53 single-family houses being built along Ky. 185 near Sugar Maple Square.
“Based on the projects in the works,” Moore said, “I anticipate another good year.”