All of a sudden, Santa Maria is on a roll.
Shortly before Christmas, city planners gave the green light to an expansion for energy industry gear maker Atlas Copco Mafi-Trench, concluding a fast-tracked process that could lead to about 100 new jobs for the city.
As Senior Editor Stephen Nellis reports in the current issue of the Business Times, Santa Maria Energy will spend more than $100 million, much of it in Santa Maria and surrounding areas, to get a new oil-and-gas drilling project up and running.
And there is a concerted effort, led by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, businessman John Everett and a downtown merchants group, to revamp Santa Maria’s downtown.
The Santa Maria area’s unemployment rate is slowly coming down from double-digit levels, and housing prices appear to be on the rebound. Once looked upon as Santa Barbara County’s second city, Santa Maria now decisively claims the top spot, with a population of 101,459 versus Santa Barbara’s 89,639. The city’s comeback is being fueled in part by the housing bust, which left it as a rare find in the region — a large community with affordable homes, condos and apartments and a skilled workforce.
But that comeback also is fueled by broader national and even international trends. First, the resurgence of the U.S. as an oil and gas producer, thanks in part to nonconventional supplies in Texas, North Dakota and in California, is making our entire nation more competitive. Manufacturing is another key strength of the Santa Maria economy.
Then there is agriculture, which never really suffered during the recession and remains a bedrock industry for the county. And Santa Maria, like much of the Tri-Counties, is benefiting from a tourism and agri-tourism boom that’s centered on the South Coast, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley.
Finally, there is a resilience to the Santa Maria Valley that’s beginning to emerge. North County businesspeople have suffered for decades at the heavy-handed regulatory regime emanating from the county government center on Anacapa Street. The city suffered a loss when Den-Mat, a corporate star, left for bigger digs down the road in Lompoc. The housing bust led to wealth reduction and a slew of foreclosures.
But through it all, Santa Maria has not lost faith in the free-enterprise system and the power of the private sector.
The loss of Den-Mat was due in part to the rapid expansion at nearby Zodiac Aerospace, a maker of aircraft interiors that is reinventing business class for international travelers.
The bottom line is that a stronger Santa Maria economy will be good for the entire region — in terms of jobs, reduced social costs and more tax revenue for Santa Barbara County, which still has trouble balancing its books. It will get an additional stimulus as a long-delayed north county jail comes online later this year.