Alaska's recession may be nearing its end — at least, that's what state economists are saying.

According to a new report from the Alaska Department of Labor, the state lost about 1,000 jobs between 2017 and 2018, but economists say that's significantly less than the two years prior.

"They're less and they're very different," said Neal Fried, an economist with the department's research and analysis division. "There's some industries like construction, for example, got hit really hard in '16 and in '17 and actually turned positive in 2018. On the flip side, retail was relatively positive in 2016, but then turned negative in '17 and '18."

At an event hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, local economists said the roughly three-year recession resulted in more than 12,000 lost jobs and more than $800 million in lost wages. The oil and gas industry was hit especially hard.

"Five thousand jobs lost. That alone would have caused our recession," Fried said.

Retail was hit hardest last year, with the loss of about 700 jobs. Fried says there are likely multiple reasons for that — among them, the loss of big-box stores like Sam's Club, Toys R Us and Sears in Anchorage.

"Those were national decisions, how much of that had to do with local conditions is hard to tell," Fried said. "All those stores were closed across the country."

While Alaska-specific totals aren't available for most of those stores, on average, Sam's Club says each of its locations employed about 175 people. 

At least one local business owner says the loss of Sears in the Midtown Mall has kept her from hiring new employees.

"I have a couple girls that I have in mind to hire; they don't have jobs right now," said Joanne Coppola, who owns Creative Chaos Gifts near the Sears' former location. "I'm like 'oh, hopefully hold out. February, hopefully we can get you in, I can get you a couple hours you know here and there to start working.'"

Coppola said most of her customers were foot traffic, which took a hit after the store left.

"When Sears closed, my next two months were like 20 percent down in sales," she said.

Some of the big businesses slated to move in, like REI and Planet Fitness, are bringing Coppola new hope.

"I've had actually a couple managers of Planet Fitness come in shopping, so that's a plus that they already know I'm here," she said. 

Fried says big-box stores are just one factor behind the fluctuations in retail jobs — e-commerce is another.

"It just bears down on parts of retail in a very big way and we're no exception to that," he said.

While job losses in that sector are expected to continue, Fried says he expects to see new growth in Alaska's overall economy in the new year.

Economists at the ISER event expect an increase in oil and gas jobs this year as local prices stabilize, although retail jobs are still lagging.

Joe Vigil contributed information to this story.

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