Employees attend a recent orientation at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington. Unemployment in San Juan County was unchanged in July at 6.6
Employees attend a recent orientation at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington. Unemployment in San Juan County was unchanged in July at 6.6 percent. (Courtesy of San Juan Regional Medical Center)

FARMINGTON — Unemployment in San Juan County was unchanged in July at 6.6 percent but showed some gains compared to a year earlier.

The Farmington area added 200 nonfarm jobs in the past year, according to a New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions report released Friday. The unemployment rate was 6.9 percent in July 2012. The data shows a small but steady improvement in the jobs base.

"What reduction in unemployment we've seen has been slight, so job growth is still sluggish," said Mayor Tommy Roberts. "A lot of things are going to have to come together before we see much aggressive job growth."

The San Juan Basin has been hurt by continued weakness in oil and gas activity. While Mancos Shale oil exploration has driven some growth and much excitement, natural gas prices remain low and drillers have scaled back as a result.

Service industries added 300 jobs compared to a year ago, while the public sector added 100 jobs, Workforce Solutions reported. That was offset by a loss of 200 jobs among goods-producing industries.

The city of Farmington is working with Four Corners Economic Development to attract more jobs, Roberts said.

"We're seeing a few more inquiries from businesses and companies about the Farmington area and San Juan County," he said. "I think it's just going to be a slower evolution of job growth than what we really want, but that's what we're going to have to expect, I think."

One potential bright spot is discussion among economic development officials, the Navajo Nation and BNSF Railway to bring rail from Thoreau to Farmington. If the tribe's proposed purchase of Navajo Mine is completed, rail would offer a way to market coal to customers outside of San Juan County.

"Those discussions are more serious now than they have been at any time in the past 20 years," Roberts said.

San Juan County has had no active rail lines for decades.

Ray Hagerman, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, met last week with BNSF officials in Albuquerque.

"They're still interested," he said. "We still have some more data discovery to do in terms of demand," he said.

The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology will conduct an engineering pre-feasibility study on the route, Hagerman said.

Anything San Juan County can do to increase transportation links would help, Hagerman said.

"Transportation is going to be key to the future no matter where you live in this country," he said.

Chuck Slothower covers business for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and cslothower@daily-times.com. Follow him @Dtchuck on Twitter.