WASHINGTON -- The economies of all U.S. regions strengthened in the early months of this year, including New England and' the West Coast, which have been among the weakest, the Conference Board reported yesterday.

The New York-based board said its most recent regional performance index turned upward for all areas, of the nation in April on a year-over-year basis.

"The first half of 1994 has brought economic growth in all nine regions clearly into the plus column, for the first time since 1988," said Jason Brain, an economist at the private business research group.

The Rocky Mountain region, led by the strong local economies of Phoenix and Denver, continued to post the strongest gains in the country, the group said.

The regional performance index is based on five components: consumer confidence, help-wanted advertisements, employment, residential building permits, and real estate sales.

Although some regions remain weak, all showed some improvement, the group said.

"Much of the acceleration in New England's economy reflects a strong rebound in Boston, while the Middle Atlantic's rebound comes largely from a sturdy recovery in New York City's chronically depressed economy," the group said. "Conditions have even improved in the Pacific regions, though it remains the weakest of the lot."

Brain said cities and their surrOunding areas are the primary engines of growth within regions. "The most significant turnarounds are occurring in certain metropolitan areas," he said.

For example, the group noted that the South Atlantic region is doing particularly well, thanks largely to strong employment growth in Atlanta over the last year.

Also, "growth remains well above average in the West North Central states, reflecting strong economies in St. Louis and Minneapolis, among others," the group said.

In addition, an improving manufacturing sector was seen bolstering the East North Central region, including Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, and the East South Central region.

"The West South Central economy, especially Dallas and Houston, has also picked up, paralleling the recent rebound in energy prices," the group said.

Brain noted that cities and suburbs tend to pick up the fastest during economic upswings because they have the biggest concentrations of trained workers.

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