How would you fix our San Joaquin Valley economy?

The Fresno BeeJune 8, 2013 

How would you fix our San Joaquin Valley economy?

SW PARRA — The Fresno Bee Buy Photo

Improving the San Joaquin Valley economy is a topic that dominates conversations in barbershops, think tanks and city halls.

Few regions in the country went from boom to bust as quickly or fell into as deep a hole as the Valley did during late 2008. Now we're among the last areas to bounce back from the Great Recession. In Fresno, the Valley's biggest city, signs of better days ahead are scant.

The Bee wants to hear your ideas on what we should do to quicken the recovery and build the foundation for a stronger, more vibrant economy that offers more opportunity and stability for the 4 million people living between the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and Bakersfield.

We will publish them in our Community Conversation on Monday, June 24.

If reader response is as strong as it was for the Community Conversation in April on ways to improve downtown Fresno, we will also share your thoughts on the economy in Letters to the Editor on following days.

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own economy. We elect the people who decide how to allocate our tax dollars, whether our communities and cities should grow out or grow up and what our schools emphasize in the classroom.

We put our neighbors on councils and boards. We send them to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Judging by the results, few of them have been effective and we haven't held them accountable.

Shame on them, and shame on us.

The challenge for the Valley — other than electing people who are more interested in results than in personal glory, advancing an ideological agenda or protecting political turf — is that our poverty breeds more poverty.

Our tax base is so weak that in the cities we struggle to provide the basics such as police and fire protection, leaving little or no money for the amenities (parks, trails, recreation programs). In rural areas, we can't even deliver clean, safe drinking water to residents.

For decades, we paid little attention to what was going on in our schools. Graduation rates plunged, dropout rates soared and the percentage of Valley residents with skills and work habits valued by employers shrank.

Families who cared about education fled crumbling school districts for new ones in the suburbs.

The question is, how do we attract the investment and new business that will strengthen our tax base and allow us to pay for basic services, as well as the amenities that elevate our quality of life?

It starts with electing leaders who are capable of seeing beyond the next election and willing to risk their political necks. Improving the Valley's economy will require short-term and long-term strategies. It will demand that city council members, supervisors, state and federal lawmakers and school board members work together.

Most of all, it will require listening and learning the realities of the marketplace from the people who are investing and operating businesses.

An example of a long-term strategy is improving our schools so more students graduate prepared to succeed in college or in the workplace.

A small school district can do this more quickly because it's easier to change the culture. For a behemoth such as Fresno Unified, it may require a generation to get things fully back on track. For school districts that excel — Clovis Unified, for example — the challenge will be to maintain excellence.

Another a long-term strategy is improving the state's ability to move and store water so the irrigation needs of Valley agriculture are met.

An example of short-term strategies are two business incentive programs recently adopted by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors that waive or defer fees for new and expanding businesses.

I like these efforts because one of the biggest problems with the Valley economy is its dependence on government jobs. We need to grow the private sector here.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, believes high-speed rail will be the Valley's "economic game-changer." He points to the $6 billion in state and federal funding that would be spent here on the backbone of the 780-mile system.

But high-speed rail also illustrates the Valley's inability to get out of its own way.

Friday, while Costa was touting the benefits of the high-speed rail project at a Fresno Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, was holding a hearing in New York and saying that billions in federal high-speed rail funding should be spent not in California, but in our nation's northeast corridor.

Not that I would expect anything different from Denham, whose loyalty to GOP talking points is greater than his commitment to helping Valley residents get jobs.

That's enough from me.

We want to hear your thoughts on improving our economy. Send your ideas in 150 words or less to letters@fresnobee.com or Letters to the Editor, P.O. Box 12504; Fresno, CA 93778-2504. Include your name, city and phone number.

 

Bill McEwen is The Bee's Editorial Page editor. He can be reached at (559) 441-6632, bmcewen@fresnobee.com or @fresnomac on Twitter.

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