HARRISONBURG, VA. -- As the economy slows across Virginia, there is good news on the economic front for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County with increasing retail sales and growth.

The Harrisonburg and Rockingham County area will be the 24th-fastest-growing retail sales area in the nation by 1992, according to Sales and Marketing magazine.

The retail growth ranking is based on a five-year prediction of 16.9 percent population growth from 1987 to 1992, compared with a national average of 4.3 percent.

Harrisonburg, for its geographic size, has experienced tremendous growth in retail trade, largely because of James Madison University, according to Sandi Scannelli, president of the Education and Training Corp. in Staunton.James Madison's student population has increased 25 percent in the past eight years to an enrollment of 10,525, Scannelli said in a recent article for Virginia Review magazine.

"The expansion planned with the new science and technology school will add roughly 30 percent more to that population, which will translate into substantial growth in the area," she concluded.

In addition, the J.C. Penney Co. has announced plans for a multimillion-dollar distribution center for southern Rockingham County, with site work already underway.

Rockingham is the No. 1 agricultural county in the state. "The challenges for this county, and for Augusta, the No. 2 agricultural county in the state, center around the choices between the level of agriculture to maintain and the level of industry and business to attract," Scannelli said.

"The good news is that these latter areas are growing and have the potential for continued growth at a time when parts of our country are experiencing a softening in the economy," she said.

Rockingham and Augusta counties, however, have experienced some recent economic slowdowns, Scannelli said. Some shutdowns have occurred in clothing-related industries. Auto-related businesses also have experienced some slowdown, and the construction industry is noticing a marked difference this year over last, she said.

The Interstate 81 corridor and the Interstate 64 interchange, quality of life, cost of living and the positive work ethic within a right-to-work state have all attracted businesses and individuals to this area for relocation and expansion, Scannelli said.

The degree of growth varies widely between Highland, Augusta and Rockingham counties and the nearby cities, she said.