Last year was a good one for Ventura County and, if current economic trends continue, 2007 stands to be just as good.

Bill Watkins, Ph.D., executive director of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Economic Forecast Project, presented statistics for 2006 and projections for 2007 last week at the 2007 Economic Outlook Ventura County seminar — where he said that, while the local economy is looking good overall, the county will eventually face a few major challenges.

Watkins, who said “the United States economy is doing better than we thought, and we thought it was doing rather well,” added that the economy in Ventura County was strong in 2006 despite slowing population growth. According to the economic forecast, “The county’s economic growth is even more impressive given its slow and slowing population growth.”

The county’s economic growth in 2006 included an increase of 7.7 percent in retail sales, while the unemployment rate dropped from 4.7 percent in 2005 to 4.2 percent in 2006. In 2007, according to the forecast, Ventura County can expect a job growth increase of 1.8 percent, and an overall economic growth rate of 3.9 percent.

While the forecast predicts that the county’s economic growth rate will remain strong relative to that of the United States, it also asserts that the county is at risk in regard to the downsizing of Countrywide Financial Corp. — a significant Ventura County job provider — and possible outsourcing in the manufacturing sector.

Still, the largest long term issue will be changes in the demographics of residents. “The county is aging more rapidly that elsewhere in the United States,” said Watkins. “We’re losing children at a faster rate and we’re also losing the 25-45 year-old population. Those are people in their great productivity years — and they’re taking their kids with them.”

Surprisingly, Watkins said, Ventura County also appears to be growing more slowly than Santa Barbara County. According to the economic forecast, population growth has declined from about 2.7 percent in 2001 to about 1.3 percent in 2006. The forecast projects that figure could rise to about 1.5 percent in 2007, but that there won’t be significant increases for the next five years. The median age in Ventura County has also risen from 31.5 years in 1990 to 36 years in 2006.

“This was a dynamic environment, filled with opportunity,” Watkins said. “That is changing, or these numbers wouldn’t be falling.”

Likewise, the county’s net migration rate is falling — meaning that there are more people leaving than are relocating to the region. “International immigration is never going to go to zero,” Watkins said. “You can put up fences and use machine guns, but it will never drop completely because of the difference in lifestyle.”

With continuing immigration pressures, population growth slipping and the median age of the region increasing — along with the need to provide for the retirement community — Ventura County will be charged with ascertaining economic sustainability as the work force shrinks.

Job growth varied across the county in 2006, with the highest growth in Oxnard and Camarillo and the lowest in Ventura. County jobs are dominated by the service sector, Watkins said.

Overall, Watkins said, he expects 2007 to be a “good year for most,” but added that those in real estate might not have much to smile about. He predicts that “housing sales will remain weak” and that there will be a small decline in housing prices that should pick up later in the year.

Also on hand at last week’s seminar was Phillip Martin, Ph.D., professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Davis, who discussed the realities of immigration in the United States.

“Today, we’re going to welcome 2,600 legal immigrants to the United States,” said Martin, who went on to say that the United States becomes home to roughly 950,000 legal immigrants annually.

Of those 950,000, about 86,000 are temporary foreign visitors who are eligible for one or more of the nation’s 16 immigrant worker programs.

In addition to those 2,600 legal immigrants who venture into the United States on a daily basis, there are 1,400 illegal, or unauthorized immigrants. Together, the number of illegal and legal immigrants adds up to a grand total of more than 500,000 immigrants annually.

What’s more, Martin said, almost all of the world’s major population growth is taking place in developing countries — countries with qualities of life far below that of the United States.