Experts talk about how Modesto can keep commuters and their high-paying jobs here

More than 86,000 workers from the Northern San Joaquin Valley drive over the Altamont Pass every day to jobs in the Bay Area. That’s up from about 5,000 commuters in the 1980s.

Those sobering numbers come from economist Jeff Michael, the director of the Center for Business & Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, as he spoke Wednesday at the State of Region 2019 luncheon before about 220 people at the McHenry Event Center.

Audience members also heard from Lenny Mendonca, the Turlock native and retired senior partner with McKinsey & Co., the global consulting firm. He now is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chief economic and business adviser and tasked with bringing prosperity to all Californians through the state’s Regions Rise Together initiative.

Michael and Mendonca spoke about the north valley’s challenges and opportunities at the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and Stanislaus Community Foundation luncheon.

For several years, Michael has been promoting the region and its 1.5 million residents in San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties as distinct from the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, which stretches from Stockton to Bakersfield, and connected to the Bay Area and Sacramento region.

He spoke about the need for regional cooperation in improving the north valley’s marketing, infrastructure and work force.

He spoke about gains made in infrastructure, including Stanislaus and Merced joining San Joaquin in having a dedicated sales tax for transportation and the expansion of ACE commuter train service to Modesto, which could happen within a couple of years.

Micheal also spoke about the potential for creating a regional airport now that the Stockton Metropolitan Airport has commercial passenger flights with Los Angeles and that such an airport would help the valley’s economic development efforts.

He said that as of 2017 there were more than 86,000 valley residents driving over the Altamont Pass to Bay Area jobs every day. These are middle-class workers, typically earning $60,000 to $120,000 annually, which is about $20,000 more than they could earn here.

Construction is the No. 1 industry for these workers followed by administrative services and manufacturing.

Michael and Mendonca talked about the need to have more of those high-paying jobs here, including trying to convince Silicon Valley companies to open second or satellite offices here. Michael said some progress has been made, citing RAD Urban, a Lathrop company as an example.

He said RAD Urban’s workers are building high-rise housing for the Bay Area in Lathrop. He said the housing is shipped to the Bay Area, where it is finished. And both talked about the steep cost of having housing and jobs separated by long commutes.

“It’s not OK to have a California where you have this ... high-quality job growth happening in Silicon Valley and Hollywood and to some degree San Diego and people have to commute two hours to get those jobs,” Mendonca said.

“It’s wonderful that they’re having a better life economically in theory,” he said, “but in practice what that means is that we’re destroying our communities everywhere. We’re not building enough homes in places where the jobs are today. We’re not creating enough jobs in the places that people live. ... It’s bad for both the environment and community.”

Mendonca spoke of restoring California to what it was when he was growing up in Turlock in the 1970s, a state where residents could achieve the California dream no matter what region they lived in.

He said that involves good policy from Sacramento that recognizes the differences among the state’s regions and convincing coastal California that inland California and its people are a good investment. It also involves each of the state’s regions developing the mindset and leadership to transform their economies.

Mendonca was optimistic about this region.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen, who led a brief question-and-answer session with Mendonca, thanked him for reminding the luncheon audience about this region’s potential and that it truly is a good investment.

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Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.