Local business, government and education leaders connected over scrambled eggs and hot coffee Wednesday morning at Stanislaus State, where they received economic updates that highlighted the future opportunities and challenges facing Turlock and its surrounding region.
The annual Eggs, Issues & Economics breakfast hosted by the Turlock Chamber of Commerce serves as one of the most informative economic discussions of the year, and this year guests were treated to updates from all levels of government: Mayor Amy Bublak, Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa and Lenny Mendonca, who serves as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Chief Economic and Business Advisor.
Bublak served as a speaker at the event for the first time since her election as Turlock’s first female Mayor last fall and shared the story of how she came to the town in the first place. The university and the city resonate strongly with her, she said, because the area became her home when she didn’t have one.
“I didn’t have your perfect childhood, and by the time I was in high school I actually lived in my car,” Bublak told the audience. “After that I got in my car and was going to go off to college...As soon as I got to Stanislaus, I thought, ‘This is where I want to go.’
“From that moment, I had so many people — none of them family — reach out to me and tell me, ‘You could be somebody.’”
It’s this connection to the city and Stanislaus County that has inspired Bublak to give back through public service, whether it be her time as a police officer in Modesto, her tenure as a City Councilwoman or now, as Mayor.
Bublak spoke about Turlock’s “dire” financial situation; in 2012 and 2013, she said, the City’s reserves sat at around $12 million, and today Turlock has just under $3 million in savings. As a new mayor whose senior-most City Council member only has two and a half years under his belt, Bublak said all she can do is try and “figure it out.”
“We can get past this, and I know I can lead us to get there,” she said. “We’re all trying to figure out how to make the best decisions for the future of Turlock while trying to make sure we pay our bills on a timely basis.”
In order to stimulate Turlock’s revenue sources, more economic development has to come to town by way of not just jobs, but professions, Bublak said. Though the unemployment rate in Turlock is better than the county-wide average, (4.1 percent versus 5.6 percent), the City must do a better job at providing opportunities for graduates and entrepreneurs to stay in town, whether it be through more housing or better job opportunities.
“I just can’t tell you that it’s insurmountable — it’s not. I won’t give up and I know my colleagues won't give up,” Bublak said. “I’m committed to all of you to set this ship right.”
Whether it be creating jobs and housing in Turlock for those who want to stay or creating the two for commuters both ways, there’s one thing required to keep these regions connected: infrastructure. Chiesa provided updates on both Measure L and the Valley Rail Project, the latter of which will expand the ACE train to Ceres.
Measure L, the County’s half cent sales tax initiative to fix roads that was passed by voters in 2016, is well underway with projects throughout the county taking place. Prior to the measure, Stanislaus County was providing little service to roads, Chiesa said. In 2016, about 12 miles of road was serviced. With Measure L money, 185 miles of unincorporated roads will see improvements, sure to improve the county’s Pavement Condition Index— a number that’s deteriorated as the years pass, Chiesa pointed out, going from 69 when he first joined the Board of Supervisors to 57 in 2017, and now sitting at under 50.
“No matter how bad the roads are in Turlock, they’re much, much worse in the unincorporated area,” Chiesa said.
Measure L projects to take place in Turlock include improvements to the West Main interchange as well as capacity improvements to Highway 99 between Monte Vista Avenue and Keyes Road.
The Valley Rail Project will eventually see ACE train stops in Ceres and Modesto and link people as far south as Merced to the rail transportation, connecting a majority of the Valley to the Bay Area.
The project is expected to take 5.2 metric tons of CO2 off the road by 2025, Chiesa said.
“I don’t make the rules, I’m in charge of governing within the rules and this is where we see the future as far as greenhouse gas,” he said.
Mendonca, who was appointed to his post in January, is a Turlock native. To be economically successful, his hometown must focus on three things, he said: investment in the future of its people, and therefore, education; increasing opportunities for children who want to grow up and stay here; and investing in structures that connect all of us, like the Valley Rail Project.
“This is a town and a region that is very different than when I left 40 years ago,” Mendonca said.
There’s a lot to appreciate in Turlock, he said, like the city’s unemployment rate, as well as cause for celebration statewide. California has had 113 straight months of job growth and added 3.3 million jobs during that time — the longest such streak since the 1960s. The state has also taken strides forward with pay increases and sees new businesses start faster than anywhere in the world, Mendonca added.
Though the job market is booming, it’s doing so in more populated areas, like the coast, where 70 percent of that growth came from.
“We’ve got, at one level, a very robust, above average growth, but it’s not in a way that’s as inclusive as it should be,” Mendonca said.
Focusing on regional economic development is key, with each area creating their own unique plans that come together to ensure prosperity for all parts of the state.
“What we don’t want to do is have those 70 percent of people who graduate from Stanislaus State and want to stay here feel like the only way that they can make a living is by moving somewhere else,” Mendonca said. “Economic development opportunities here are not without challenges, but I will tell you there’s not another country in the world or another state in the country that wouldn’t trade their situation for California’s.”