Ventura's Appeal Has Limits

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County prides itself on its broad expanses of open space and leisurely pace of life. But when it comes to creating jobs, it can't brag anymore.

Just a few years ago, Ventura County boasted one of Southern California's healthiest labor markets; now it's the region's weak spot. It has lost 2.2% of its nonfarm payroll jobs over the last year, a performance that makes perennial laggard Los Angeles County -- down only 0.8% -- look lively by comparison.

Ventura County has been hammered by many of the same forces that have blunted job creation across the state and country: continued fallout from the tech crash, a shift of manufacturing jobs overseas, tight municipal budgets stemming from California's budget mess and soaring workers' compensation costs.

"It's a broader issue than Ventura County," said Mike Gummeson, chief executive of NDS Inc., a Woodland Hills-based maker of irrigation and landscaping products. This fall, NDS shuttered a Simi Valley facility, sending 75 jobs to Fresno, where costs are lower, and also closed a plant in Burbank and rolled those operations into a facility in Texas. "It's a fundamental state issue. California is an expensive place to do business."

But economists say distinctive factors hamper Ventura County.

Although low interest rates have fueled a burst in housing starts and construction employment in much of Southern California, the county hasn't enjoyed the same upturn, because of its strict limits on development.

Construction employment in Ventura County in October was down 11% from a year ago, compared with a statewide gain of 3%.

Likewise, rapidly rising home values make it harder for businesses to attract employees. In October, the median price for a new home in Ventura County was $544,000, a tie with Orange County for most expensive address in Southern California, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

Some economists foresee a county populated by increasingly well-heeled and aging residents, the type of place where company owners might love to live but wouldn't dream of expanding their businesses.

"You're going to see some economic stagnation," said Mark Schniepp, principal of the California Economic Forecast, a Santa Barbara-based economic consulting firm. "Housing and infrastructure are definitely going to be limiting factors for Ventura County going forward."

That's music to the ears of many residents, who have no desire to see Ventura County turn into the next Phoenix or Las Vegas. As it is, the largest city, Oxnard, has only about 180,000 residents, and the county is known for its semirural atmosphere, good schools and fierce protection of its open space.

A series of initiatives requires voter approval for conversion of farmland or for urban development outside designated boundaries in most cities in Ventura County.

The result, builders say, is that relatively few homes are built and those that are carry hefty price tags to compensate for skyrocketing land costs and the lengthy approval process.

Steve Kessler, president of the Los Angeles-Ventura division of Trimark Pacific Homes, had a waiting list of buyers for 50 units the company is constructing in Thousand Oaks. Every one of the homes, priced from $700,000 to $800,000, was snapped up, with virtually no advertising, he said.

"We just kind of shake our heads wondering how long this can continue. Where are people going to work to be able to afford these kinds of homes?" Kessler said.

There is good job news: Amgen Inc., Ventura County's largest private-sector employer, has been on a hiring spree. The world's largest biotech firm was expected to add 1,200 workers to its Thousand Oaks headquarters this year, according to company executives.

But other major employers aren't in an expansion mode. WellPoint Health Networks Inc., based in Thousand Oaks, recently agreed to be acquired by Anthem Inc. of Indianapolis, a union that WellPoint said could result in the loss of 250 jobs at its Ventura County headquarters.

Small businesses are feeling the squeeze as well. Tim Cooley, owner of a Thousand Oaks pest-control service, said he loved living in Ventura County but was growing weary of doing business there. Although all of his 10 employees live in the county, he said, none of them can afford to buy a home there, a fact that he says makes him "feel a little bit humiliated." Hit with soaring workers' compensation fees and facing a 45% hike in his rent, Cooley recently scrambled to find cheaper quarters.

"This is a great place to live, no question, but it's a battle to do business here," said Cooley, owner of Tim Cooley's General Pest Control Inc. "There is very much a not-in-my-backyard attitude that exists."

Gary Wartik, economic development manager for Thousand Oaks, said his recruiting activities were focused on two areas: attracting businesses that could offer well-paying jobs and snagging more quality restaurants and retailers to serve increasingly high-income residents.

"It's not a function of exclusivity; it's more a reflection of economic reality," Wartik said.

But even businesses that fit his criteria are worried about Ventura County's long-term prospects as communities such as Thousand Oaks approach the stringent development limits.

Wayne Davey, chief financial officer of Rockwell Scientific, a high-tech enterprise with operations in Thousand Oaks and Camarillo, has been forced to shell out fat relocation packages and other housing assistance to woo top scientists. As his business grows, he wonders how he'll be able to find additional office space or attract lower-level workers to an area with no available housing for them.

"We're creating a situation where even high-tech companies are going to have to look outside the county to expand," Davey said. "Over time, the needs of the community will continue to grow, but the tax base stays the same. That is not a workable model."

One area of growth for Ventura County has been agriculture. Farm employment statewide dropped 9% between 1997 and 2002, but the number of farmhands in Ventura increased by nearly that much over the same period to about 19,000. Ventura County last year produced nearly $1.2 billion of agricultural products, 10th among all California counties.

Experts credit slow-growth initiatives for keeping much of Ventura County's farmland sprouting citrus rather than subdivisions. Local farmers have shown a knack for adapting production to higher-value crops.

When third-generation farmer John Grether got his start in the 1970s, his family's operation near Somis was devoted mostly to lettuce, celery, broccoli and tomatoes. He spotted better opportunities in tree crops, and today Grether Farming Co. specializes in avocados and lemons.

Now that cheap citrus from Chile and Argentina is challenging his lucrative export trade with Asia, he is experimenting with mandarin oranges and watching how farmers in the country are doing with raspberries and blueberries.

"There is a lot of competition in the world for citrus production," Grether said. "So we're having to look at other crops."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction Ventura's economy -- An article in Saturday's Business section about Ventura County's economy incorrectly stated that WellPoint Health Networks Inc. could lose 250 jobs at its Thousand Oaks headquarters after its pending acquisition by Anthem Inc. of Indianapolis. WellPoint has said there could be some losses among the 250 jobs at its headquarters but has not specified how many.
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