Business

Fresno Co. cities win zone status

Ten rural cities and several unincorporated areas of Fresno County have been designated California Enterprise Zones, which could spark economic growth in some of the Valley's poorest regions.

The program gives companies tax breaks for hiring disadvantaged workers and investing in depressed regions.

Fresno County's application was one of 23 approved last week by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

The cities of Fresno, Merced, Delano and Arvin also had their applications approved.

"This is a huge deal for us," Mendota Mayor Joseph Riofrio said Monday, because west-side residents have suffered from the closure this year of De Francesco & Sons, a garlic and onion processor west of Firebaugh.

In nearby Helm, ConAgra Foods Inc. will lay off nearly 230 workers by Monday at its tomato processing plant as it scales back operations.

Selma City Manager D-B Heusser also said the designation is big news because small cities have few economic development tools to retain existing businesses and attract new ones. "The goal now is to get the word out," he said.

Fresno County completed its application in three months and spent about $145,000 to hire Jack Faucet Associates to analyze the data and write the application and other reports. The cities chipped in an additional $95,000 for the consultant, the application and supporting documentation.

Jose Leon-Barraza, the county's economic development coordinator, said Fresno County's application is unique because it covers about 75 miles from Firebaugh on the west side to Orange Cove in the east.

The cities of Fowler, Firebaugh, Mendota, Orange Cove, Parlier, Kerman, Selma, San Joaquin, Sanger and Reedley will benefit from the designation, as well as the unincorporated areas of Del Rey, Helm, Malaga, Calwa, Easton, Caruthers, Riverdale, Biola and Tranquillity.

The majority of the other approved applications involved one to four jurisdictions, Leon-Barraza said.

Leon-Barraza said a key part of the county's application showed a partnership with the cities, as well as several key players in the private sector, among them the Economic Development Corp., Workforce Investment Board, California State University, Fresno, and Regional Jobs Initiative.

The EDC will market the enterprise zone to prospective employers, Leon-Barraza said. The Workforce Investment Board will monitor the program to ensure businesses receive their financial incentives. Under the program, businesses that locate or expand in an enterprise zone can receive incentives, including $30,000 or more for hiring qualified employees and sales tax credits of $20 million per year toward the purchase of machinery and parts.

There are 42 such zones in California, and the designation is for 15 or 20 years. Fresno County's designation is for 15 years, Leon-Barraza said.

According to a recent University of California at Davis study, California's 42 enterprise zones have added nearly 300,000 jobs between 1992 and 2002.

The reporter can be reached at plopez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6434.

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