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Hey, coastal California: It’s time to change up your view of inland California

‘It’s gorgeous. I love it!’ former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin says of Fulton Street

Watch and listen as former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin describes the dramatic changes to Fulton Street as seen from drone video. After winning the fight to reopen the mall to traffic, proponents like Swearengin are looking forward to big things
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Watch and listen as former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin describes the dramatic changes to Fulton Street as seen from drone video. After winning the fight to reopen the mall to traffic, proponents like Swearengin are looking forward to big things

Where is innovation happening in California? If you ask someone to place pins on a map for areas of innovation, many will likely point to the Bay Area, with its decades-long strengths in computing and information technology. Others who are knowledgeable about Southern California may point to “biotech beach” in San Diego, high tech in Irvine, or entertainment tech in Los Angeles.

Very rarely, however, will they point to inland California, an area stretching from the urban and rural parts near Sacramento through the Inland Empire. Inland California is home to 30 percent of the state’s population, and growing significantly faster than the state as a whole. We’re also younger, with one third of the population is under the age of 25, providing employers here with a pipeline of workers they won’t find anywhere else.

Despite inland California’s importance to the state and its future, words like innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership do not predominate. Instead, when you hear about places like Stockton, Modesto, Fresno, Bakersfield, Riverside, and San Bernardino, you are much more likely to hear a litany of problems like poverty and corruption than about transformational investments and innovative leadership.

This view of inland California is not only one-sided – coastal California cities have their problems, too – it is also hopelessly outdated. If all you knew about Stockton was its reputation for crime and corruption, you wouldn’t know about leaders like Mayor Michael Tubbs, who won city council at the age of 24 and is testing out bold, innovative solutions like universal basic income and is attracting massive investments to reinvent the city. Nor would you know about the multi-sector projects and partnerships that have emerged out of a network of new generation leaders in Fresno and Modesto. Nor would you know about the innovative ways that the Inland Empire is building a new kind of Census outreach plan, working with industry stalwarts and stitching together expertise from city and county governments, nonprofits, businesses, and academic institutions alike.

Innovation in inland California does not stop with civic leadership or political leadership alone. We also have transformational economic assets in our region, including two University of California campuses, over a dozen private colleges, and four California State Universities, with plans to build a new campus in Stockton. We have corporations like Esri, the global leader in geographic information systems, hoping to nurture an ecosystem of info-tech startups near its headquarters in Redlands. And we have startups like Bitwise Industries, a Fresno-based tech with a Latinx founder that recently raised $27 million to help expand their operations to Bakersfield. We have private research medical centers like Loma Linda University investing $1 billion in new facilities, and assets like UC Riverside’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology, which has $25 million in active grants and helped to attract a $400 million research facility of the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

This is not to say that problems are absent in the Central Valley and Inland Empire. Even as these regions make progress, they continue to confront poverty, low college completion, and lack of affordable housing and transportation. But these problems are not unique to inland California. Many neighborhoods in coastal California, from San Diego to Oakland, experience similar challenges or worse. But that does not stop state government, philanthropy, or private capital from making investments in distressed areas of coastal California. These investments may be risky, but they are well-calculated risks based on intimate knowledge of local talent rather than a superficial understanding of communities based on drive-by opportunities or scans of news headlines.

Leaders from the Central Valley and Inland Empire are organizing to change that dynamic. Last month, we held the first regional summit of Inland California Rising, an unprecedented effort to find common cause and attract even more investments to regions like ours that represent the future of California. Senior leaders from the Newsom administration, from economic development to higher education and planning, used the occasion to announce a major statewide initiative called Regions Rise Together where Inland California will play a significant role. Foundation leaders attended, too, including four CEOs and senior program officers from Southern California funders like Weingart, to statewide funders like the James Irvine Foundation, to national and global funders like Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

All are interested in learning about the progress being made, and are committed to increasing public, private, and philanthropic investments in the Inland Empire and Central Valley. We are already seeing tangible signs of progress, such as the creation of Opportunity Zone fellowships from FUSE Corps that will benefit Stockton, Fresno and the Inland Empire alike, and engagement from Milken Institute and others to build stronger tech ecosystems across our region.

California’s future is inland. Now is the time to make critical investments in the region and fulfill the promise of “California for all.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, and co-founder of Inland California Rising, a coalition of leaders seeking to dramatically boost public, private, and philanthropic investments in the Central Valley and Inland Empire.

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