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Commentary: Go Inland, Young Californians

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio

Are you a young person in an expensive coastal city who fears the California dream ended a few generations back? Do you see no end to your struggles with high rents and a sluggish job market?

Go inland, young Californian.

This may seem like strange advice. Inland California—especially Southern California’s Inland Empire counties of Riverside and San Bernardino—was ground zero for the housing and foreclosure crisis. Inland regions have some of the state’s dirtiest air and most dangerous streets, along with jobless rates that remain in the double digits.

But the damage of recent years has created opportunity. With the housing bubble popped, the inland region is awash in affordable homes. The much-feared Central Valley “brain drain”—the departure of educated people for opportunities elsewhere—has left many skilled jobs unfilled. And the bad economic statistics inland have convinced policymakers on the coasts (including major foundations and charities) to spend more on developing the inland region; it’s no accident that in a state full of potholes, Highway 99 is bigger and better than ever, or that high-speed rail construction is beginning in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the places with the most job openings in California is, believe it or not, greater Fresno

  Jacob Bollinger, a California-based data scientist at Bright Labs, part of Bright.com, which connects jobseekers to jobs, recently pointed out that when you look deep into the data, you’ll find that one of the places with the most job openings in California is, believe it or not, greater Fresno. Jobs abound not just in transportation but also in retail, professional services, and healthcare. When I spent a couple days in Fresno last month, Saint Agnes Medical Center had 38 job openings, and the county was talking up plans to create 100 new positions just to help sign people up for insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Of course, inland California remains a hard sell. (When I Googled “why should I move to Fresno?” the first link that came up was an article: “10 Reasons Not to Move to Fresno.”) But for those willing to make the leap, Fresno and the counties around it have never looked like a better bet. The cost of living is low; traffic is mild by coastal standards; and the physical beauty of the Valley is underappreciated. If you live in Fresno, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Morro Bay are all day trips. Technology and transportation investments are making it easier to stay connected to the coast, and crime and pollution, while too high, are going down.

If I were younger and looking for a job and not trapped by a crushing Southern California mortgage, I’d think hard about moving to Visalia, population 126,000, about 45 minutes south of Fresno.

Many Californians couldn’t find Visalia on a state map, but the city is an arts center, with its own symphony and opera. Its downtown has at once old-school charm, new-school functionality, and enough ethnic food options (Japanese, Mexican, Cajun, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Danish) to satisfy even an L.A. hipster. The minor-league baseball team, the Visalia Rawhide, is run with major-league style by members of the O’Malley family, which once owned the Dodgers.

On a recent visit, I marveled at a three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,100-square-foot house for sale in a spotless neighborhood for $179,000. That would require a mortgage payment of $800 per month. (Meanwhile, the 25-year-old I sit next to at work pays more than that for her portion of the rent on an L.A. apartment she shares with two other people.) And you get more than you pay for. A new survey of Visalia residents found that 69 percent rated the quality of life in town as either high or very high.

But what’s most striking about Visalia, and other smaller cities of California, is the relative openness of the people in charge. In L.A. and the Bay Area, elites are unreachable. They live high on hills and behind walls. Ambitious young people spend considerable time and effort trying to penetrate those networks, which is why you find Harvard M.B.A.s working in Hollywood mailrooms.

By way of contrast, consider what happened in Visalia earlier this year, when the town decided whether or not to go to the ballot to raise the local sales tax. In L.A. or San Francisco, such a decision would be made behind closed doors by politicians, lobbyists, and political strategists.

In Visalia, the city formed a “Blue Ribbon Task Force” to consider the tax hike—and opened membership to anyone who wanted to join. Some 38 people came together for meetings that involved thoughtful consideration of the budget and tax structure. In a recommendation debated at the city council this week, the commission concluded that now is not the right moment to ask voters for such a tax increase. Commission co-chair Janice Avila disagreed with the conclusion but told the local paper: “This process was phenomenal. I honor the process and honor the outcome. I didn’t agree with the outcome, but that’s the democratic process.”

A newcomer to Visalia might be limited by nothing more than her own ambitions. On a recent morning, I found myself on the south side of town at a groundbreaking for a new health clinic. It was one of many new health facilities in Tulare County, and the executive with the shovel offered a joke.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “If it was, we would have hired the contractor.”

Inland California won’t be built in a day either. But move now, and you can get in on the ground floor.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.

Joe Mathews is the California editor of Zócalo Public Square, a not-for-profit daily Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism. He is the author of The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger And the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy and coauthor of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, books that established him as one of the premier translators of the state’s politics and policy. Previously, he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Baltimore Sun.
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