County needs hustle on jobs

Stanislaus County job seekers face a "dark future" if government leaders don't pay more attention and less lip service to luring industry, job creation experts say in a strongly worded report.

"The urgency requires our leaders to make difficult decisions now," reads a media advisory issued Thursday by Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance staff.

When approving new housing proj- ects, leaders should set aside portions of land dedicated to employment, the advisory urges.

"Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die," said Bill Bassitt, the alliance's chief executive officer. "You've got to make some sacrifices."

It's a new twist on an old refrain, lamenting a dearth of appropriate sites for industrial buildings in Stanislaus County, a bedroom community of the Bay Area.

In 1980, 1 percent of county workers, or 1,037 people, drove to jobs over the Altamont Pass. That number had increased to 8 percent, or 13,657 commuters, by 2000 and is expected to jump to 28,367 by 2030, the alliance report predicts.

The trend might be slowed by providing more and better-paying jobs here, the report says, and that will require leaders working harder to offer shovel-ready industrial tracts.

There are isolated pieces of industrial land available in Stanislaus County: 215 acres in the Beard Industrial Tract in southeast Modesto, about 170 acres in the Keystone Business Park in Patterson, and smaller chunks of land elsewhere in Modesto as well as Turlock, Oakdale, Ceres and Newman.

But armed with new population projections from state experts, Bassitt figures Stanislaus County should prepare 15,000 acres for commercial and industrial development. Leaders have targeted 10,000 acres, and there is no guarantee they will be developed accordingly.

"We're already in trouble because we don't have enough sites now, and there doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency to address the job development side," Bassitt said.

His words may be harsh but are not surprising, some leaders said.

"It speaks of a need to do something sooner rather than later," said county Supervisor Jeff Grover, an alliance executive committee member.

Grover and Bill O'Brien, chair- man of the county Board of Sup- ervisors, said the board recently started the ball rolling for a huge business park in Crows Landing and commercial and industrial land in Salida. Combined, the projects would develop 8,100 acres and bring more than 60,000 jobs, supporters say.

"I think we're making prog- ress," O'Brien said. "That's stuff that government in general hadn't done (for decades)."

More than 1M residents?

Bassitt tied his warning to newly revised population pro- jections by the California De- partment of Finance.

In 2000, the department pre- dicted Stanislaus County's population would jump from 451,190 to about 850,000 by 2040. Using new indicators, the department in July boosted the number to 1,014,365 by 2040.

That would mean adding about 112,000 homes on 22,426 acres, Bassitt figures.

"But nothing is being planned to accommodate jobs," he said. "All you're getting is resistance in Crows Landing and Salida."

Bassitt referred to criticism from West Side residents and a Patterson City Council majority about the Crows Landing plan as well as Bee editorials chastising supervisors for bypassing a public vote with their approval of the Salida Now initiative and growth plan.

"I don't see why the alliance is being so pushy," Patterson Mayor Becky Campo said Fri- day, enumerating reasons she is skeptical of developer Gerry Kamilos' plans for the former naval air station in Crows Landing. "The alliance has been extremely one-sided. What their motive is, I really don't know, but in my opinion, they need to stay neutral and advocate for jobs but not criticize Patterson."

Brian Velthoen, a commercial Realtor long involved in in- dustrial development, said the Salida plan is the best chance to create a successful business park that the county has seen in 20 years.

The town has ready truck access to Highway 99, he said -- a huge plus because county voters in the fall turned down a sales tax increase that would have pumped millions of dollars into road improvements.

But industries also require water and sewers, which many cities in Stanislaus County, Modesto chief among them, are short on. Sewer bills in Modesto began increasing last month to pay for $420 million in waste- water system improvements.

The valley's most likely economic growth is not in drawing electronic chip manufacturers from Silicon Valley, Velthoen said, but in expanding agribusiness. And "wet" companies look for plentiful water and sewage.

"How are you going to get it done if you don't have sewer and water in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley breadbasket?" Velthoen asked.

Pepsi jobs lost to Oregon

Dick Hagerty, an alliance executive committee member and developer, said Stanislaus County lost a chance at 200 Pepsi jobs to that very problem when the company went to Oregon instead.

"We're at a big disadvantage," Hagerty said. "San Joaquin County loves to make shovel-ready dirt available for anyone who wants to come into their community."

Land values further complicate the problem, Velthoen said, because industrial property sells for about one-third the price of land zoned for houses. Leaders can't expect landowners to sacrifice that much money, Velthoen said.

"The problem is kind of like a bowl of spaghetti," he said. "You're trying to find the right end of the spaghetti to pull and it gets all mixed up and mushy."

The alliance's advisory bills itself a "call to action."

"These projects must proceed as emergencies if we are to in any way capitalize on rapidly diminishing competitive advan-tages," the report reads.

Though little of the information is new, some experts said they hope the advisory sparks public dialogue.

Kirk Lindsey, a California transportation commissioner from Modesto who sits on the alliance's executive committee, said the public's buy-in is critical to solving the problem. More important than talking about it, he said, "You've got to have people believe it."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.