The economy finally is recovering in the San Joaquin Valley. But, as the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate, not all Valley cities are fully participating in the bounceback from the Great Recession.
Among them is Fresno, the Valley's largest city and cultural anchor. Fresno's unemployment rate in April stood at 12.6% -- about 3 percentage points higher than the unemployment rates in Bakersfield and Visalia.
The reasons for Fresno's troubles are well chronicled. Our economy is overly dependent on agriculture, our labor force includes large numbers of people without training and high school diplomas. Our construction industry is powered by home-building and prone to boom-and-bust cycles.
But it's impossible to overlook the fact that Bakersfield and Visalia, for the past several years, have billed themselves as business-friendly cities and now are on the leading edge of the recovery.
What makes for a business friendly city? Encouraging entrepreneurs, answering their questions straight up and briskly processing their permits. A business friendly city bends over backward to ensure that projects aren't held up by last-minute surprises.
Fresno's last three mayors have promised to simplify the bureaucratic maze at City Hall. It hasn't happened.
Fed up with the status quo, residents, business owners and nonprofit leaders have formed a group called Creating Prosperity in Fresno. Some of its members include developer Darius Assemi, attorney Kurt Vote, wine grape growers representative Nat DiBuduo and real-estate company owner Larry Fortune.
"There needs to be hope for a better future in Fresno," Assemi says. "Why is our unemployment rate still so high? We have to grow the economic pie, and we have to end the brain drain, where talented people leave because they have better options elsewhere."
Creating Prosperity in Fresno has four goals: 1) promote job creation and infill development equally throughout the city and its sphere of influence; 2) streamline the permitting process so that Fresno can better compete with neighboring cities; 3) strengthen career technical training and arts programs in schools; and 4) make Fresno a more business friendly city.
To be effective, the group will need a broad base. It can't merely be a front for the interests of a handful of people. But Assemi raises a point that Mayor Ashley Swearengin must address: What are Bakersfield and Visalia doing that Fresno isn't?
The mayor, in her four-and-a-half years in office, has concentrated on cuts to balance the budget, reworking the city's labor contracts, rebuilding downtown and updating the general plan. She has said that these efforts will pay off handsomely down the line.
It's time now, however, to get more people working. Accomplishing that goal starts with making Fresno a better place to do business.