Coastal Carolina University economist Don Schunk didn't bother to sugarcoat his dismal science when he addressed a group of local small-business owners in Dorchester County on Friday.

"We're not at the end yet of businesses failing," he said at a luncheon organized by the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce.

He cited figures that showed how retail spending throughout the county dropped 16.5 percent between 2007 and 2009, while the actual number of businesses grew 7.7 percent. The disconnect means that while broader economic indicators are showing signs of life, employers still face a difficult operating climate.

But Schunk insisted the analysis wasn't entirely gloomy.

"As that happens, remaining businesses get stronger and stronger, and positive momentum builds behind that," he said. "They still have the potential to do well, but they can't rely just on economic growth."

Signs of that broader economic growth were evident in a series of slides. Many of the charts showed welcome upticks in economic activity, often after a dramatic weakening, among indicators such as savings, debt per household and hiring numbers.

"For most of them, if you look at the (last few months) ... you can see a small bit of good news," Schunk said.

As for his forecast, Schunk predicted local job growth will approach 1.8 percent by the end of the year.

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Given the current pace of employment growth in the Charleston area, the region could recover all the jobs lost throughout the recession by the end of 2012. For the state, the estimated recovery date is 2014.

Interestingly, not once during Schunk's 45-minute presentation did he mention Boeing Co.'s $750 million plan to build a 787 Dreamliner jet assembly line in North Charleston, an economic development win that has dominated conversation among the local business community since the aerospace giant's announcement last fall.

"I ran out of time more than anything else," he said after the presentation. "But there might be a larger issue too, in that looking ahead over the next year or two years, Boeing has a relatively minimal economic impact during that time frame. The focus today was on the short-term outlook."

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or