The West is recovering faster than the nation as a whole, but employment across the region remained far below pre-recession levels in the third quarter, and the housing market showed few signs of improvement.
Those are the findings of a report Thursday by Brookings Mountain West researchers at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. It focused on economic growth in 10 metropolitan areas in the states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Idaho.
Tucson is struggling more than most, ranking in the bottom 20 in overall recovery among the nation's 100 largest metro areas, the researchers said.
Among the reasons for Tucson's woes: "Its economy is heavily dependent on 'eds and meds' (education and health-care sectors) and now-stagnant federal spending in industries like defense - bulwarks in the early years of recession, now insufficient catalysts for recovery," the report said.
Overall, the Mountain West region saw a modest 0.3 percent growth in employment in the quarter ending in September, compared to the national rate of 0.1 percent, the study found. Utah, Colorado and New Mexico - states that have built broad economic bases - struggled the least, researchers said.
In Arizona and Nevada, the housing collapse continued to limit job growth.
In all, every metropolitan area lagged behind pre-recession employment levels, with Phoenix and Las Vegas experiencing the sharpest differences. Job levels languished 10.8 and 13.4 percent below their respective pre-recession peaks.
Still, there was enough employment growth in the past year to drive down the unemployment rate in every major metropolitan area singled out by the report. Utah and New Mexico had the lowest unemployment rates, while Las Vegas had the highest at 13.6 percent.
Leading the recovery were Utah's Ogden and Provo, Albuquerque in New Mexico, and Phoenix. Boise and Las Vegas showed modest signs, but Tucson and Colorado Springs were still struggling, the report said.
Ogden and Provo saw employment rise by 1.5 percent, and Idaho's Boise saw a 1 percent increase in jobs. But employment grew by less than 1 percent in Phoenix, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City and Tucson.
Manufacturing gains drove the jobs numbers in Provo and Ogden, while government expansion helped Boise grow its work force. Conversely, government layoffs contributed to economic woes in Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Denver.
Production levels remained depressed in Tucson, Boise, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The housing market offered few signs of recovery. Prices across the region remained significantly below last year's totals.
Still, the report highlighted some positive milestones. Prices remained stagnant or improved in eight of the metropolitan areas for the first time since the recession began in 2007. In Las Vegas and Tucson, home values continued to fall, but at a much slower rate than in previous quarters.
Hard-hit Tucson, Las Vegas, Boise and Phoenix will not see improved home prices in the foreseeable future, the researchers said.
"They have high foreclosures, they had massive real estate and construction employment that crashed and that kind of crack up has proven to be toxic to places," said Mark Muro, policy director for the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Business leaders called the report's findings accurate. In Tucson, where some of the major employers include national banks, health centers and the University of Arizona, officials are trying to promote higher education and attract more technology companies to the region to expand the work force. But the recovery remains weak.
"The Sun Belt markets have just been hammered by the mortgage meltdown and everything having to do with this economy," said Michael Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce.
The Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.