The Tri-Cities boasted Washington’s fastest-growing job market for 2016, with an annual growth rate of 3.6 percent.

In fact, the top three economies for 2016 were all in Eastern Washington, with Wenatchee and Spokane rounding out the list.

In real numbers, the Tri-Cities economy added 3,800 jobs in 2016, according to December figures released Tuesday by the Washington Employment Security Department.

The Seattle area, not surprisingly, posted the most new jobs, accounting for 46,000 of the 82,000 jobs added in Washington last year, a growth rate of 2.9 percent. The state average was 2.6 percent.

Eastern Washington’s strong jobs performance is welcome news, said Ajsa Suljic, the state’s regional labor economist.

“If we’re all growing, it means there a lot of expansion going on,” she said.

Locally, food manufacturing drove growth, adding 1,100 positions in 2016 for a growth rate of nearly 15 percent. Suljic said that was especially surprising given that one major manufacturer, CRF Frozen Foods, shut down last spring after a listeria outbreak was linked to its products.

“With all the troubles we had, with everything that happened earlier this year, we managed to outpace the growth we had last year,” she said.

Food processing and manufacturing picked up over the summer and never looked back, she said.

Carl Adrian, president and CEO for the Tri-City Development Council, credits a strong agricultural sector for vaulting three Eastern Washington communities into the fastest-growing category. Relatively strong commodity prices have benefited the region, he said.

But the Tri-Cities is unique in not relying solely on agriculture. Hanford, coupled with a growing population attracting professional services, leisure, hospitality and retailers, is adding jobs.

Two companies that are investing in new facilities here will begin adding employees this year as well. AutoZone is building a warehouse in Pasco that will employ 200. Lamb Weston is adding a french fry line in Richland that will add more than 100 new jobs.

“I think all indications are that we will continue to have growth in the coming year,” Adrian said.

Construction was another solid performer in 2016, with employment peaking in June at pre-recession levels.

The fastest-growing designation comes with a downside.

The Tri-City unemployment rate ticked up in December, as it typically does at the end of every year, at 7.8 percent. That was identical to the prior December, but up from 6.6 percent in November. Benton County’s unemployment rate was 7 percent and Franklin County’s was 9.5 percent.

The mid-winter slump is typical for the post-holiday period, when retail and construction tend to hibernate, Suljic said.

She expects the slowdown to persist through January, then begin its seasonal pickup in February. January and February employment reports won’t be released until March for administrative reasons.

Suljic sees no weaknesses to interfere with the region’s economic expansion, which will hit the four-year mark in March if growth trends continue. She’s not yet worried that the new administration’s uncertain plans for immigration reform and its freeze on federal hiring will chill local growth.

The Tri-City economy depends on federal dollars at the Hanford site, but most employees are not directly employed by the government, though she will be watching employment levels carefully.

“I’m not seeing any weaknesses. I’m not seeing any slowdowns,” she said.

By Wendy Culverwell, Tri-City Herald (wculverwell@tricityherald.com)