2 Far-Flung Counties Help Pull Each Other Up by the Bootstraps

Times Staff Writer

They're the two scrawny kids in the schoolyard.

Both have sky-high unemployment. Their educational attainment and median income levels are in the tank. A fourth of their populations live in poverty. And each struggles with an agricultural economy that is both blessing and curse.

If Tulare and Imperial counties share so many problems, leaders reasoned, why not share solutions? Now, the economic development gurus in the two poor counties have teamed up to do just that.

The partnership is probably a first for non-neighboring counties and ones separated by more than 400 miles, at that, said Wayne Schell, president of the California Assn. for Local Economic Development. "These two guys can commiserate with each other: 'Did it work for you?' 'Nah, why don't you try this?' " said Schell.

"By God, if any place needs help, it's Imperial," he added, pausing. "Then again, Tulare doesn't exactly have a low unemployment rate either."

Already, the relationship is bearing fruit. Imperial -- tucked along the Mexican border in the state's southeast corner -- has adopted a promotional slogan dreamed up by the president of Tulare County's Economic Development Corp.: "Hotter Than Phoenix!" The relationship bloomed after Louis Fuentes, president of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp., met his more experienced Tulare counterpart, Paul Saldana, at a conference in Palm Desert last year.

Both counties have scraped the bottom of California's statistical barrel for years. Last year, Imperial County's unemployment rate averaged 19.2%, to Tulare County's 15.5%. So desperate for jobs was Imperial County a few years back that it competed to host a state hospital for violent sexual predators. It lost. (The Central Valley community of Coalinga won the facility.)

Both struggle with the legacy of their agricultural roots: few non-farm jobs and large Spanish-speaking populations with little schooling. Each has had some recent -- though limited -- success clawing its way out. The two development directors started brainstorming.

Tulare admired Imperial's improvement in educational scores since luring a San Diego State University satellite to Calexico. (It is now getting a second satellite in the northern part of the county.) It coveted Imperial county's Mexican trade ties and resulting international savvy.

Imperial, meanwhile, envied Tulare's ability to attract non-agricultural businesses in printing and distribution. Wal-Mart, Joann's (a fabric retailer) and Best Buy have all moved in, creating the kinds of year-round jobs that both counties drool over. And so it went.

"They're trying to apply the same things there that worked here and vice versa," said Saldana, who has traveled to Imperial County about half a dozen times since last summer. Fuentes has visited Saldana four times.

"We're far enough apart to where we're really not going to be competing with one another," Saldana said, "but the information we gain individually and collectively becomes very useful in our effort to recruit and diversify our economy."

Imperial even decided to adopt its Central Valley counterpart's euphemism for unemployment statistics. They call it a "workforce availability rate."

Saldana's organization has been around for 20 years, and Saldana has labored in the trenches of economic development for 17 years. The Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp., meanwhile, was born in 1999, and Fuentes took its helm just two years ago. He looked to Saldana for advice and found a partner.

A relaxed man with an easy laugh, Saldana boasts an office collection of photographs that he has taken of half a dozen city skylines. He was astute enough to hire a public relations firm to pitch his county's assets a few years ago. And from the dismal unemployment statistics he dreamed up this organizational slogan: "The People to Grow Your Business."

Imperial County's "hotter than" slogan stemmed from a brainstorming session with that county's advertising consultants. Fuentes complained that the valley's stifling summer heat gave it a bad reputation. Saldana argued it could be an asset. Plenty of companies have flocked to Phoenix, he noted. Why not the Imperial Valley? He jotted the idea on a slip of paper, and it stuck.

In addition to learning how to better attract non-agricultural companies, Fuentes wants to coordinate his county's job-training efforts to match the needs of businesses already in his own backyard -- something he says Saldana does well. Saldana, meanwhile, says he has already benefited from Fuentes' Mexican trade contacts.

The two men also hope to take their teamwork to Sacramento. Tulare County's Assemblyman Bill Maze has introduced a bill pushing a four-year university for the county. Imperial County's Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia has introduced a bill expanding a county enterprise zone. Now Fuentes and Saldana hope to persuade their respective lawmakers to alter the language of the bills to support each other's legislation.

"You have another Assembly person to vote for your bill, on both sides," Fuentes said. "It's a win."

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