Down, but not out

Santa Maria plots its comeback

May 25, 2010
Pacific Coast Business Times
By Stephen Nellis, Staff Writer The Santa Maria Valley economy has suffered blows from many sides: 3,500 construction jobs have evaporated, a motion picture special-effects house with Oscar-nominated work has signaled its intention to leave town and, earlier this month, a UPS call center announced it would lay off 270 workers.

But economic forecasters say Santa Maria – with its pro-growth policy approach and some big infrastructure projects in the works – represents some of the most fertile ground for recovery in the Tri-Counties.

The horizon is bright, if distant. Despite all the bad news, companies such as Fusion Contact Centers, an Arizona-based call center, are expanding.

On a recent day, 18 new hires filled a training class room at Fusion’s Stowell Road site, one of two that it has opened in the past few years. It employs more than 400 people in Santa Maria, more than 150 of them hired in the past six months.

In the training room, new hires play an online game through Facebook. They’re familiarizing themselves with one of the call center’s biggest clients, a firm that makes the games and taps Fusion to handle customer and billing support.

“We actually pay them to play the games,” said Ryan Romero, Fusion’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Online gaming has really exploded, and we have lots of clients in that area.”

Fusion is hiring fast, but its best efforts barely dent Santa Maria’s 15.6 percent unemployment rate and 6,400 unemployed, state figures from March. News like the UPS layoff could move that needle.

“That hurts when that kind of thing happens,” said City Manager Tim Ness. “Where those people go, how they’re absorbed – that’s a tough one.”

Romero said he’s already contacted UPS’s site manager asking for resumes. “My goal is to try to find those guys homes at our business,” Romero said. “We feel like if we take care of our people, they’ll take care of our customers.”

In the bigger picture, it’s agriculture that drives the Santa Maria Valley economy. Twenty-six percent of all employment in North Santa Barbara County is in agriculture, and 86 percent of the county’s ag jobs are in the north, according to the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project. And ag jobs have grown steadily, from 13,956 in December 2007 to 18,084 in January, softening the recession’s sting a bit.

Santa Maria is planning a business park near its airport and has annexed 900 acres along Blank Road where a state-of-the-art tomato greenhouse could bring 200 jobs.

“I really believe the Santa Maria Airport District and the Santa Maria Airport Business Park is the salvation of the valley and the key to bringing jobs to the valley,” Ness said. “That has 714 acres of property that is ready for development.”

Brad Kemp, director of regional research at Beacon Economics and co-author of the UCSB forecast, said growth-oriented policies around Santa Maria are likely to boost the North County’s political stature.

“You’ll see more weight swing up there,” Kemp said. “That infrastructure growth is what I’m looking for. That’s the future: If you don’t have the infrastructure in place, business won’t come.”

On the retail side, Santa Maria’s mall is being remodeled, with a 14-screen movie theater planned. Ness is hoping that will make a walkable core for the city, which lacks a defined downtown like those of Ventura, Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo.

Marian Medical Center’s massive remodel – it is adding 216,000 square feet and will have 188 private rooms once the white wraps come off – also stands to create Santa Maria jobs. Ness said he’d like to court four-year schools or at least a healthcare training center to help capitalize on the opportunity. Augmenting the city’s education offerings at Allan Hancock College will be key to higher paying jobs, Kemp said.

Both Kemp and Ness also agreed that Vandenberg Air Force Base – the only U.S. space launch site on the West Coast – is likely to play a big role in tech jobs.

Though the influx of people has slowed, population growth and construction will return, Kemp said, because the area is one of the most affordable on the Central Coast.

“Banks will be looking for the next development property and the next development in the region,” Kemp said. “obviously, it’s not going to be South Santa Barbara County. The construction industry will come back. Will it come back with the irrational exuberance of 2004? I hope not.”

Back at Fusion, the hiring is ongoing. The only issue now is space – the company is running out of workstations. “We’re pretty full, so we’re going to be looking for options,” Romero said. “We want to create a presence in Santa Maria as a premier employer.”

 

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