September 23, 2023
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Positive trends emerging for the year ahead 

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It’s hard to see the calendar turn to December without thinking about the year ahead and what it means for the Central Coast economy. Here are three trends I’ve been watching, along with some insights about what lies ahead in 2023. 

We are moving beyond the COVID era, even if “post-COVID” is not quite an accurate term. Yes, health care organizations are still treating COVID-19 patients, a few hundred people a day are dying of COVID and the uptake on vaccines has been slow. But the thought of a winter surge, with lockdowns and a return to social distancing, is very hard to imagine, even if a new variant or two emerge. What has happened is that we are better able to protect vulnerable populations in care homes; between the relatively high level of vaccinations, and built-up immunity, the worst seems to be over. Few parents want their kids to experience another year of lost school as human contact at work and in education is making a comeback. We’re still grappling for the right words to describe the near-after COVID time – that’s been the topic for debate at several nonprofit board meetings I’ve attended recently. One long-term, surviving trend is the emergence of hybrid meetings. For the Central Coast, having the ability to Zoom in on a meeting that would take over an hour to drive to by car, is a godsend. 

One legacy of COVID is an increased focus on community services and philanthropy. Many nonprofits have emerged from the pandemic with strengthened boards and a renewed sense of mission. While working on our “State of Philanthropy” panel in the current issue of the Business Times, I was struck by the fact that donors and nonprofits are beginning to connect more deeply on a number of issues. And wealthy donors who might have built fortunes in LA or on the East Coast are looking to have an impact here on the Central Coast. 

The travel and tourism economy is in a broad-based recovery across the region. And it’s not just limited to traditional hot spots like Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. Ventura County’s lodging association is reporting a steady increase in occupancy and, most important, in average room rates. The years of growth in flights and available seats in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo is driving additional traffic. There are going to be future growth opportunities for space tourism related to Vandenberg Space Force Base and for smaller communities along the coast, including Morro Bay, with eco-tourism possibly emerging as the proposed offshore wind farm moves closer to construction. In Santa Barbara, all eyes are on the Four Seasons Biltmore, as speculation swirls about Ty Warner’s plan to reopen and possibly rebrand the resort. 

Despite low unemployment and rising wages, there are limits to the power of labor unions,  which can’t afford to overplay their hand. A bipartisan move in Congress appears ready to head off a potential rail strike by imposing a settlement on a few unions that haven’t signed on to a tentative deal. A strike could have had an impact on the Port of Hueneme, as well as on supply chains everywhere, setting back the entire U.S. economy. The UC system’s tentative agreement with 11,000 striking postdoctoral fellows and researchers will likely form a template for resolving the issue with the rest of the 48,000 employees who walked out a couple of weeks ago. 

While there are signs that inflation has peaked, the impact of higher interest rates has yet to be felt, many floating-interest-rate loans won’t fully reset for a few more months, as the Federal Reserve has not yet finished hiking rates. The future of housing – an important industry because it soaks up so much personal wealth – is clouded by questions of supply, mortgage costs and affordability. Savers, on the other hand, are finally getting rewarded for their ability to save for a rainy day. 

Send me your thoughts about what lies ahead.

•Hentry Dubroff is the founder, owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com