April 24, 2007

Growth amid Gloom: California’s Central Valley

Excerpt from L.A. Times article about the Central Valley City of Delano and its manager Abdel Salem, an Egyptian native who arrived in Delano about four years ago from El Centro where he had been city manager for more than two decades:

This city of 49,000 now has no fewer than 35 major building projects in the pipeline, including a giant shopping center. Hundreds of homes are being added each year as families spill over from the coast in search of affordable housing. “We know the people are coming,” Salem says. “The Central Valley is the last frontier.”

Despite the bustle, however, Delano is down at the heel. Its unemployment rate stands at around 20%, far higher than the county’s overall mark of 6.9%. The median per-capita income in the city is about $11,000 — just a shade above the federal poverty line. Since 2000, annual population increases have outstripped the creation of jobs (2.8% on average compared with 1.7%). Tumbledown shacks dot the outskirts of town.

What’s abundantly clear is that an influx of residents “isn’t necessarily a key to prosperity,” says Carol Whiteside, president of the Great Valley Center, a Modesto-based group trying to promote the region’s well-being.

Meanwhile, the pathologies that tend to go hand in hand with privation have descended upon Delano. Among them is gang violence. When I got my hair trimmed the other day at Firme’s Barber Shop, just off Main Street, the buzz was about how students were recently put on alert and shooed straight home from school. The reason: Police feared that Los Angeles gang members might make the two-hour drive to Delano and start shooting in retaliation for a MySpace posting they deemed offensive.

This juxtaposition — growth amid gloom — points up the enormous opportunities and challenges facing not only Delano but also much of inland California. Extending from Riverside to Redding, the area “is perhaps the greatest untapped outlet for upward mobility in the Golden State,” declared a report last month from the Brookings Institution. If our leaders are smart about how they plan and invest, this vast stretch can be a place that provides decent jobs, a strong sense of community and a shot at homeownership.

But if they goof up, the cost will be high. How this part of California fares, the Brookings study noted, “may determine whether the state remains competitive and a beacon of opportunity in the early decades of the 21st century.” Complicating matters is that these 75,000 square miles are far from homogenous. The rural reaches of the Central Valley, in particular, trail far behind the Inland Empire and the Sacramento suburbs in their economic vitality.

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