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New Year promises mixed recovery in the Tri-Counties, led by SLO

By   /   Friday, January 4th, 2013  /   Comments Off

San Luis Obispo will be California’s little county that could.

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Dubroff

San Luis Obispo will be California’s little county that could.

Santa Barbara County will struggle to find an economic development strategy.

And Ventura County will have to wait for Greater Los Angeles before it can fully get its groove back.

These are the dominant themes for 2013 as I see it at the dawn of the New Year.

Borrowing a few data points from Chris Thornberg of Beacon Economics, it’s clear that San Luis Obispo County has emerged from the Great Recession with a unique mix of agribusiness, wine tourism and alternative energy projects that are pulling the county and its roughly 250,000 residents forward.

It is also attracting capital, talent and startups as venture capitalists and technologists see its proximity to Cal Poly as an alternative to pricier environments in the Bay Area. Toss in an Amgen Tour stop in Avila Beach and a bigger marketing effort for Morro Bay and things are looking up.

Any pickup in housing will have a huge impact on unemployment.

The variables for SLO County include the unfinished business of assessing earthquake risks for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and a lawsuit against the county by developers of an onshore oil and gas operation that got shot down in the early stages of permitting.

Santa Barbara County is watching history repeat. The South Coast is lurching toward recovery as UC Santa Barbara finds funding stability and as software, hardware and medical devices companies find it easier to get access to financing.

In the Santa Maria Valley, airport expansion, oil and gas operations and agribusiness are providing a slow stream of new business. But absent a renaissance in housing or the arrival of a major new employer to fill the AirPark, unemployment will remain very high.

Bridging the gaps between North Santa Barbara County and South Coast remain as troublesome as ever, and a countywide economic vitality effort still seems beyond the grasp of the major political players. So does finding a path out of stubbornly tough fiscal problems.

Ventura County will lag the region, at least in terms of reducing its unemployment rate, in part because Greater Los Angeles is still a giant soft spot. Greater LA still struggles with a public sector that is too big and a private sector that can produce blockbuster films in North Carolina or New Zealand but no Google or Facebook equivalent in Santa Monica’s Silicon Beach.

Still, Ventura County remains the best block in a weak neighborhood. The surprise and belated success of the The Collection at RiverPark shopping center project in Oxnard is a sign that the region’s oldest city may yet again reinvent itself. Any housing rebound would help lift the tide in the entire county.

There is enough innovation in the Conejo Valley to survive a modest round of job cuts at flagship companies such as Amgen. Mayor Bob Huber is guiding Simi Valley, the county’s No. 2 city, on a path to job growth.

Across the region, agribusiness is coming off one of its best years in recent memory, but in 2013 weather and global prices for things like tomatoes, avocados, citrus as well as grapes and berries will count for a lot.

We’ll also see the first real impact that health care reform will have on the region’s hospitals, where something like $2 billion in capital has been invested in recent years in new facilities. Some experts believe that the next phase for larger providers will be to lock up relationships with primary care clinics to feed patients to all those new facilities.

The flip side of Prop. 30 is the sharply increased tax rates that Californians will pay when they cash in stock options or sell a business. If we are going to see large relocations and not just a few symbolic departures, 2013 will show us the way.

• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.

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