Agriculture is a $3.6 billion industry in the Stanislaus County which is dependent upon one precious commodity: water.
“Water is the Central Valley’s version of oil,” said President of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Joey Gonsalves at the Turlock Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Trends Breakfast on Tuesday.
The breakfast, at which local dignitaries and business leaders convened to discuss the state of the economy, was appropriately timed with the 85th anniversary of the Great Depression.
While stakeholders in the agriculture sector cannot control the fickle rainfall anymore than anyone else, the conversation on Tuesday centered on what the region, and Turlock in particular, can do to remain competitive in an ever changing local, national, and global economic landscape. According to keynote speaker and chief executive officer of PMZ Real Estate Mike Zagaris, this means shaping up to remain relevant.
“People in other parts of the world, do you know what they want? They want what we have and they’re willing to work for it,” said Zagaris.
Sensing a shift towards a knowledge-based economy, Zagaris vocalized anxieties about the region’s ability to cope with impending change particularly in respect to education, crime, and employment. Promoting a lower tolerance for criminals and a more aggressive approach to education, Zagaris’s presentation served as a quasi call to arms to encourage local leaders to play their part in shaping the future of the region. One place to start? Education.
“There is nowhere in America where people are less prepared for change in the twenty-first century than here,” said Zagaris, noting that less than half of the region’s population possess a college degree compared to the state and national average. “If you don’t have a degree or the skills commensurate with the economy’s needs you won’t have a job.”
Zagaris also highlighted the ironic juxtaposition of Turlock to the Bay Area, a region frothing with innovation particularly in the technology sector. Tapping into his expertise in the real estate industry, Zagaris noted that Turlock’s high rate of uneducated and unskilled work force in conjunction with its geographic location could potentially make Turlock a bedroom community to the more cutting edge culture just two hours away.
“The steeper the price gradient becomes between the two regions, the more at risk Turlock is of becoming home to residents without a vested interest in the community,” explained Zagaris.
While Zagaris touched on long term goals pertinent to the future of Turlock, the outlook was not entirely bleak as Turlock typically fares better than Stanislaus County in several facets, including unemployment, as evidenced by a survey conducted through the Small Business Alliance. According to the Alliance’s CEO David White, 81 percent of Turlock’s companies are planning to expand which could prove beneficial for the local community. While he noted that 90 percent of Turlock companies are also “just hitting their stride” as they plan to add new products or services in the next two years, he confirmed the countywide need for skilled production laborers.
“If we don’t have a workforce that meets our businesses’ expectations, they will go elsewhere and that is something we need to focus on,” said White.
One area of the Valley that has maintained its edge in the increasingly competitive and global economy is the agriculture industry which is producing 262 percent more food with 2 percent less input today compared to 50 years ago said Gonsalves.
“Overall we’re doing well and at this point we’ve got to keep calm and do a rain dance,” he joked.
The development of Turlock aesthetically also served as a central point of the breakfast as the way a town looks is one important factor “if you’re going to sell a town” to prospective businesses said Zagaris.
“If you drive down the unlandscaped 99 you would think we’re in a third world country,” said Zagaris, noting that the freeway is many individual’s first impression of the town and thus integral in attracting business. “We need higher standards for aesthetics.”
While Zagaris’s “tough love” address seemingly eclipsed the positive developments in town, he did not leave the podium without acknowledging Turlock for its accomplishments. By noting that “we here in the Valley do not live in splendid isolation” and are therefore susceptible to the changing economy at the global level, Zagaris invoked the local government and private sector leaders to be proactive in considering the direction of Turlock and the region in future years.
“Turlock has a clearer sense of itself than other communities, but we need a vision for this region,” he said. “We need to create an environment where people want to stay.”