There has been much said recently about what was previously unthinkable, an exodus of people from the state and county. Orange County now must reckon with its very desirability. It is no longer possible to expect that if you build it, they will come.
It was not so in the upbeat years that preceded the recession of the 1990s. Even while much of the country was in a downturn, limitless growth, infinite possibilities seemed to be the watchwords here. While county planners did open the door to developers to do as they pleased, there was no coordinated strategic planning for a rainy day. The idea of recruiting industry, of offering incentives to locate here or stay, or of creating partnerships, never was deemed necessary. It was, in fact, one aspect of a larger failing, a prevailing lack of political vision for the county, which has turned up once again in the restiveness and division over the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Now, in recent months, some of the fallout of the county's failure to plan for its future is becoming ever clearer. There is no greater symbol of California than the automobile, and no more suggestive example for a reversal of fortune than the recent Department of Finance analysis of drivers' license records. In Orange County, which was once assumed to be the place to be, 38,253 people went to other states in the 1992-93 fiscal year, which was four times more than in the previous 12 months.
It is possible to overstate the significance of one analysis, but UC Irvine social ecology professor Mark Baldassare, who has tracked attitudes in Orange County for some time, has detected an important and unexpected shift from the previous prevailing certainty. All of the planning and expectations as recently as five years ago was for growth and a boom psychology. Now, some of the optimism that fueled the attitudes of residents has been replaced by fears about the long term, including housing values and the availability of jobs.
Where did the county go wrong? The recession hit full force, for one thing. But it also failed to present the world a unified front to anticipate future needs, and with an undercurrent of laissez-faire thinking, it allowed problems such as traffic gridlock and a paucity of affordable housing to fester. There was a false sense of security about the future of the economy, and little thought given to the need to reach out to new industry, and to sell the assets of the region.
Recently, such organizations as the Industrial League of Orange County, the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and a group called Partnership 2010 have begun to fill some of the leadership void in the county. They have been talking about new strategies of capitalizing on the drawing points of the area to improve the business climate. And with the county divided over plans for the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the league last week held a useful forum on base closures. The idea was to explore approaches to the challenge, and to do so with an open mind.
To date, there has been too little of this kind of collective soul-searching. And merely filling a hotel banquet hall to hear talk about common problems does not ensure that anyone will assume a meaningful leadership role, or that agreement will be found on solutions. But there is a telling tale in those DMV figures, a hint that the county has some lessons to learn from applications for drivers' licenses in other states. The sun still shines brightly and warmly on this special place, but collectively, we all have work to do to ensure its future vitality.