High Tide of Low-Tech

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lured by land deals and a convenient location, manufacturing companies from Ojai to South Africa are moving to this working-class seaboard city.

When analyzing the Ventura County economy, business leaders often point to the budding high-tech corridor along the Ventura Freeway from Thousand Oaks through Camarillo.

But in the county's largest city, economic growth is coming from companies that make things such as machine tools, refrigerators and radio parts.

In a new report, the city-funded Greater Oxnard Economic Development Corp. lists 10 industrial companies that have moved to Oxnard during the past year or are building factories here.

Those companies, which range from machine-tool producer Haas Automation to Explorer LLC, a South African refrigerator maker, have brought nearly 1,000 jobs to Oxnard, the report says.

The new openings buttress Oxnard's manufacturing base, which has lost hundreds of jobs as companies such as Abex and Nabisco have closed in recent years.

"This is all low-tech stuff," said UC Santa Barbara economist Mark Schniepp, who tracks the Ventura County economy.

Schniepp said an influx of manufacturing can bring stability to a regional economy, because relocating employees and heavy equipment is expensive so companies do not want to move often.

The companies arriving in Oxnard make products with proven markets, and that should add to their stability, Schniepp noted. Many high-tech companies compete in less-established markets.

"Not every household has a biotech need," the economist said. "But every household needs a refrigerator. And every company needs tools. It's providing a lot of jobs for Oxnard."

Executives at the companies say that good land deals, along with incentives such as the high quality of life in Ventura County, prompted them to move here.

Haas Automation, with more than 650 employees, has been the city's biggest catch.

The company left Chatsworth this spring, having grown too big for its 200,000-square-foot headquarters. Its new Oxnard headquarters on Sturgis Road is more than twice that size. And dozens of prospective machinists, accountants and other job seekers continue to line up there.

Peter Zierhut, Haas' marketing director, said that executives looked across the West and throughout Southern California for new headquarters.

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Affordable land provided one reason to go to Oxnard. But Zierhut said there were other incentives, including a large pool of skilled blue-collar workers and the county's high quality of life.

Zierhut used to commute from Palmdale to Chatsworth. Now he drives from Camarillo.

"I found Camarillo is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of crowding, crime, air quality, climate,' he said.

Aside from Haas, officials point to Bungee International, another Chatsworth refugee with about 200 workers, to underscore new industrial development. It has moved into the Pacific Commerce Center park on Rice Avenue.

Templock Corp., a maker of safety seals for products such as aspirin bottles, has brought more than 50 employees from Carpinteria. The company moved into the McInnes Ranch Business Park, one of several Oxnard industrial centers showing signs of life after little activity during the biting recession of the early 1990s.

Many of the companies fueling economic growth in Oxnard are relatively small.

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For instance, Santa Monica Millworks is a cabinetmaker with 30 employees that moved to an industrial area near Wagon Wheel Road in December.

Officials also are touting the arrival of Explorer LLC from South Africa. The company makes portable propane and battery-powered refrigerators.

Nonelectric refrigerators are common in rural South Africa, and company officials are betting that a market for them will emerge in the U.S., as consumers continue to enjoy outdoor recreation.

The company opened its Mercantile Avenue factory a few weeks ago and expects to hire two dozen welders and assemblers.

Market potential in the U.S., coupled with cooperation from local and state officials, drew Explorer to Oxnard, said company manager Geff Rael.

"We looked all over the world," Rael said. "We looked at Italy. We looked at Portugal. We looked at places like Tennessee and Florida. We looked in the Inland Empire. Eventually, we settled in Oxnard. It's a very strategic location."

Betting that Explorer's payroll will grow, state and local officials are considering giving the company about $1 million in grants, loans and tax breaks, said Brad Hill, a foreign investment specialist with the California Trade and Commerce Agency.

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Hill projects that Explorer's Oxnard plant will have 180 employees within five years.

"I think it's a fantastic product line," Hill said. "Explorer is going to be a big employer in Oxnard in the next couple of years."

Companies from local cities are also moving to Oxnard.

This summer, Ojai will lose one of its biggest employers when Industrial Tools Inc. moves its headquarters to Oxnard's Channel Islands Business Center.

The growing toolmaker, founded in 1961, planned its relocation several years ago, buying six acres for $1.75 million. The move was stalled by investments in another company.

Industrial Tools will double its plant space with its 65,000-square-foot Oxnard plant. A handful of the firm's 110 employees has moved to Oxnard, while many employees who live in Ojai are preparing for the 30-minute commute, said Eric Nielsen, president of the family business.

Nielsen said the company's employees have an emotional attachment to Ojai, but it was time to leave.

"I love living in Ojai," he said. "But this is what the business needs to do.

"We just didn't want to make that investment in Ojai. We didn't think it would be a very good real estate investment. Oxnard was a good choice. Most of our customers are not local--they're domestic and international. They're going to fly into LAX, and driving to Oxnard is a lot easier than driving into Ojai."

Ojai City Manager Andrew Belknap said the rural city expects to feel the pinch when Industrial Tools leaves.

"It's a bittersweet situation for the community," Belknap said. "On the one hand ITI got its start here and grew into a big business. They explored staying here, but we just don't have that industrial space like Oxnard. We are a little city."

Scosche Industries, another local company moving to Oxnard, will join Industrial Tools in the same industrial park. The Moorpark-based maker of of audio equipment says it will make 25 new hires by the end of this year.

"It basically came down to land values," said Kasidy Alves, the company's marketing director. "It was $3 a square foot there, compared to $7 to $10 here. Oxnard had the best land value. The Valley was too congested. So we went west."

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Company executives also say that the Greater Oxnard Economic Development Corp. has helped make their relocation easier.

Steve Kinney, the development corporation's executive director, said the group has helped speed up the city permitting process for many companies. In the case of Haas, for example, building plans were approved within a month.

"I can only relate what businesses tell me; and they have a much higher comfort level dealing with the Oxnard establishment than other cities," Kinney said.

Many of the new factories are near agricultural fields just outside Oxnard. Kinney said that there is still plenty of room for industrial growth within city limits. The Pacific Commerce Center in the city's northeast corner has 800 vacant acres, he said.

"The infrastructure is laid for industrial use," Kinney said. "We need to be able to diversify from the Navy and agriculture, which historically have been the cornerstones of the county."

Economist Schniepp said that Oxnard's growth as a manufacturing hub should not take anyone by surprise.

"The city of Oxnard is very accepting relative to other coastal cities in California" in terms of industrial development, he said. "Companies are trying to take advantage of that. There was no doubt that this was going to happen."

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