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Bakersfield Comes Into Full Boom

Times Staff Writer

Ag town, oil patch, Okieville. Folks around here like the title boomtown better.

They’ve got good reason. Houses are sprouting these days, as fast as cotton in the hot San Joaquin Valley sun.

And this town of humble roots, bad air and the pungent smell of dairy farms has seen its population explode as national builders have moved in to plant dozens of new subdivisions.

Over the last year alone, no large city in California has grown at a faster rate than Bakersfield, which averaged 36 new residents and 12 new houses every day.

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And no metropolitan area in the nation has seen housing prices rise faster than Bakersfield, where homes sold for 34% more in the first quarter of this year than a year before.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in Bakersfield,” said oilman Gene Voiland, 58, who arrived in 1969. “We’ve had little spurts. But this is unprecedented.”

It may be hard to believe, but this Depression-era boomtown -- better known for country singer Buck Owens and oil-field roughnecks -- has overcome blistering summer heat and chilling winter fog to emerge as a vibrant center of California growth.

Increasingly, it’s a city of good restaurants, trendy shops and the stylish new golf course communities so familiar to many Southern Californians. More than ever, it’s a city of commuters to jobs in Santa Clarita and the Los Angeles Basin, a retirement destination and a real estate opportunity for investors.

Since 2000, Bakersfield has added nearly 50,000 new residents, more than every other city in California except the three largest -- Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose -- and Elk Grove near Sacramento, which expanded partly by annexing a neighboring community.

With nearly 300,000 residents, Bakersfield is now the 11th largest city in the state.

In addition, a Cal State university campus that opened in 1970 is growing steadily, and sophisticated newcomers have arrived from big cities across the nation as the oil industry has rebounded, farmers have prospered and Bakersfield has become a crossroads for goods distribution. After three decades of steady -- and now explosive -- growth, Bakersfield is no longer mentioned most often as the butt of a Johnny Carson joke.

“I remember when Bakersfield went through its last boom, when the price of oil went up in 1974,” said demographic researcher Joel Kotkin, author of “The City: A Global History.”

“I called it an Okie Abu Dhabi,” he said. “It was a place very distinct from Los Angeles, and the notion of Bakersfield as kind of an extension of Los Angeles was unthinkable. But now it’s becoming part of the L.A. solar system.”

As with previous booms -- oil at the turn of the 20th century and the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s -- newcomers are moving to Bakersfield for economic opportunity.

Mostly that means affordable housing: with condos and houses selling for $220,000 in the first quarter of this year, a median price less than half that of Southern California.

But buyers are not just retirees and young families priced out of the coastal housing market. About one of every four is a speculator, quick to flip properties for a profit, according to property appraiser Gary Crabtree, who regularly surveys the market. About half of the investors are from outside the Bakersfield area, he said.

“My flip of the week,” said Crabtree, “is a house that closed escrow for $431,500 in April, was put back on the market, had three bidders, and is now in escrow again for $675,000.”

A sign of how quickly the market is moving, Crabtree said, is that the average sales price of a single-family home in Bakersfield was $275,237 in May, and the average list price of 910 homes on the market last week was $387,911.

A San Francisco finance research firm, Loan Performance, recently ranked Bakersfield ninth in the nation for investor loans, which made up nearly 19% of all mortgages in the city in the first four months of this year.

Bakersfield businessman Bellete Gashaw, a 40-year-old from Ethiopia, is one of those investors, having purchased two homes he intends to sell.

“When I got my first house last year, it was $139,000; now it’s worth $300,000,” he said, while examining model homes at an entry-level subdivision in south Bakersfield, where the lowest-price house was $260,000. He had brought along a friend, a civil engineer from Santa Clarita, who was also looking for investment opportunities.

“I’m surprised by these prices,” Gashaw said. “I don’t think I’m going to buy any more.”

Speculation is so rampant that many Bakersfield builders now refuse to sell to investors, fearing that they will only drive prices up and take the profits. The builders require that owners occupy the homes and hold them for at least a year or pay a financial penalty.

Cheap land and a central location have also triggered a surge in commercial development in Bakersfield, with construction of new office and retail centers and warehousing and food-processing plants. A Dreyer’s ice cream plant recently added 450 jobs, a Target distribution center created 1,250 positions nearby and State Farm Insurance moved 300 employees when consolidating two Southern California regional offices in Bakersfield.

“We took the needs of our employees and our ability to recruit into consideration,” said State Farm spokeswoman Hilary Whitcomb. “Our employees can purchase a house here, the schools are good and the commute is shorter than in Los Angeles County.”

The result is more jobs for an area of chronic joblessness. Employment in metropolitan Bakersfield has increased about a third since 1994, while unemployment has been cut in half, to 7.6% in May. Though still higher than the statewide rate of 5.3%, Bakersfield has made more progress than California overall.

Partly as a result, Inc. magazine has ranked the city high on its list of the “best places for business” in the United States for the last two years.

Despite the economic upturn, Donavan Ropp, director of the Business Research and Education Center at Cal State Bakersfield, said there was a downside to the good news: Most new jobs in Bakersfield don’t pay very well, and the vast majority of local students don’t go to college.

“We have a lot of the high school mentality, and those who didn’t even make it through high school,” he said. “So the job choice is going to be McDonald’s.”

To address that problem, Horace Mitchell, president of Cal State Bakersfield, said the university hopes to nearly double its enrollment to 15,000 students in a decade. The goal is to provide skilled workers for the area’s growth industries, such as finance and insurance, mortgage and brokerage, and product distribution.

“We’re having an increasing presence in this community,” said Mitchell, who was recruited from UC Berkeley a year ago after finding there was more to Bakersfield than he had imagined.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Bakersfield?’ But when you look at the growth and excellent residential areas -- gated communities with multimillion-dollar homes -- you say, ‘My goodness, this is really quite a place.’ ”

Mitchell is not alone in “seeing Bakersfield with different eyes,” said business consultant Sheryl Barbich, who led an effort to envision what the city should become by 2020.

“We’ve developed a kind of quirky sophistication,” she said. “It comes when you’ve got Buck Owens on one side and the Bakersfield Symphony on the other.”

Owens, who with Merle Haggard popularized country music’s gritty Bakersfield sound, sees the Bakersfield boom as a mixed blessing.

Owens still draws crowds every Friday and Saturday night at his $10-million, 500-seat Crystal Palace on Buck Owens Boulevard. His KUZZ radio station is still No. 1 in the area. And just last month he sold four properties that he had bought over several years for $2.4 million, reaping a huge profit.

“The secret is simple,” said the 75-year-old onetime Dust Bowl farmworker. “Find out where progress is going, and get in the way.”

Progress is running right over the town where Owens settled 54 years ago after falling in love with its honky-tonks, hardtop car races and truck-stop food. And it’s changing forever.

One thing just about everybody in town agrees on is that Bakersfield needs an image makeover.

It’s true that agriculture remains Bakersfield’s largest employer, accounting for about one-sixth of the area’s 300,000 jobs. And it’s true that oil companies are still Kern County’s three largest taxpayers. And goodness knows, thousands of migrants from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, and their descendants, are still around.

What is not so obvious to those who drive through town on California 99 is that Bakersfield has matured, boosters say.

Its beleaguered downtown is coming back to life, with young families moving in and performances at the Spotlight and Stars theaters. A new art museum was built four years ago and recently exhibited works by Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and the French Impressionists.

Professional ice hockey and football teams -- and entertainers such as Elton John -- play at the 9,000-seat Rabobank Arena, which opened in 1998.

“I’ve had 22 homes in 15 cities,” said Bernie Herman, 54, who retired as chief executive of five local hospitals last year and now manages the Bakersfield Museum of Art. “We could move anywhere, but we’ve stayed here.”

Still, Herman praised Bakersfield partly by describing what it isn’t. He’s lived in Fresno, Herman said, and Bakersfield is not as foggy. He’s spent time in the San Fernando Valley, he said, and Bakersfield is often cooler in the summer.

“I’m from Nebraska, and I’ve always said there’s a Midwest work ethic here,” he said. “And there’s still a small-town feel.”

There’s also a Midwestern conservatism to its politics and religious life, with evangelical churches in abundance.

But Councilwoman Sue Benham, a graduate of UCLA Law School who married into a Kern County farm family, said views are changing in a county with a small-government mentality, where individual property rights have reigned supreme.

More than a hundred people turned out at a recent hearing to argue that Bakersfield should protect the dappled, golden hills of the city’s northeast from overdevelopment.

“In 25 years here, it was the first time I’d seen this kind of outpouring,” Benham said. “It was a community awakening.”

In another political demarcation, the City Council opposed relocating two huge Chino dairies southwest of Bakersfield, citing air- and water-quality concerns. But a split county Board of Supervisors approved the move.

Nowhere is Bakersfield’s transition more obvious than in the southwest, an expanse of farmland 40 years ago, but now decidedly upscale thanks in large part to the ambitions of developer Castle & Cooke, owned by Dole Food Co. Chief Executive David Murdock.

The company’s Marketplace outdoor mall -- a complex with fountains, movie theaters, a Starbucks, Baja Fresh and Jamba Juice -- may be the busiest place in town.

And Murdock’s red-brick, white-columned Seven Oaks Country Club -- modeled after his Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks -- is the priciest, at $30,000 for a full membership.

A Georgian-style home on the golf course sold for $2.35 million not long ago, and a local doctor is building a Mediterranean-style mansion of at least 12,000 square feet.

But if Bakersfield’s frenzied housing market is making builders and homeowners rich, it’s discouraging to 18-year-old Jeannette Rodriguez, who works at Vons along with her parents.

“I used to think that right out of [community] college I’d try to get a little place of my own,” she said. “But now people come here from L.A., and we’re going up, up, up to L.A. standards.”

Some old-timers, such as Buck Owens, aren’t all that happy about the change either.

“Bakersfield’s losing it’s country flavor,” he said. “There are million-dollar homes around here now: In Bakersfield? Are you kiddin’ me?”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On the fast track

Bakersfield is the fastest growing large city in California. Last year, its population grew by 13,222 to 295,893.

*--* Bakersfield California White 51.1% 46.7% Latino 32.5% 32.4% Black 9.2% 7.4% Median $39,982 $47,493 Household Income College 19.6% 26.6% Graduates Unemployment 7.6% 5.3% Crime rate per 59.2 40.0 1,000 residents

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Sources: State Department of Finance, Jan. 2005; 2000 census; State Employment Development Department, May 2005; FBI, Uniform Crime Report, 2003


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