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Fresno’s Brain Drain Has Left the Town Smarting

Times Staff Writer

George Raney is a mix of pride and chagrin as he talks about his four grown children here in his cluttered office at the local university. Smart kids, one and all, they did everything a parent could ask: Earned good grades, graduated from college, found careers that make them happy.

They also broke their father’s heart. The crime? Putting Fresno in the rearview mirror at the earliest possible moment and never looking back.

Carolyn, a 36-year-old teacher, lives close to the beach in San Clemente with her lawyer husband and two young sons. Louisa, a 34-year-old graphic artist, can’t imagine being anywhere but La Jolla. Kevin, 31, is in the mortgage business in Huntington Beach. And Leanne? The 26-year-old actress is clawing her way to fame and fortune in Chicago, waiting tables to pay the rent.

But Raney, a linguistics professor at Cal State Fresno, has worries beyond his own parental predicament, for his children are not the only ones who’ve left the struggling southern San Joaquin Valley. The region suffers from a brain drain unlike any other in California. The loss of its best and brightest is felt from Fresno south to the Tehachapi Mountains.

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When the area’s most educated residents leave, “it takes away from the culture and intellectual life of the valley,” said Raney, 67.

It also hamstrings the economy, strains the social fabric and puts a damper on the quality of life here in California’s agricultural heartland.

Although the Fresno metropolitan area is growing as newcomers take advantage of comparatively low housing prices, the region lost one-sixth of its young, single college graduates between 1995 and 2000, according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis released last year.

Nationally, the only places that lost more young graduates were either dying Rust Belt cities or college towns, whose job it is to export the educated. In comparison, the Greater Los Angeles area saw that same demographic grow by almost 10%, while it jumped nearly 20% in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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But it’s not just young people who are leaving. A 2004 report by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that the loss of educated residents in the southern San Joaquin Valley cuts across all ages. Of the adults leaving the five-county area for other parts of California, 24% had college degrees, according to the study, but only 15% of those entering the region from elsewhere in the state had the same education level. In addition, much of region’s growth comes from immigration; many of those new residents have low education levels, which intensifies the brain drain’s effect.

The situation here is not as dire as in places like Iowa or North Dakota, but there is increasing concern about the problems that an unskilled workforce only intensifies: low wages, unemployment, poverty and difficulty attracting new business.

So Fresno has been doing some serious civic soul-searching, and it doesn’t like what it sees. Many local officials are starting to believe that the city’s historic selling points have become its liabilities.

“If you’re doing economic development in a place like Fresno, it’s a tough call,” said demographer Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute. Because the region has sold itself to businesses as a low-cost place to operate, “a brain drain is an almost natural consequence.... You have a population that’s relatively less skilled. Wages are lower. Land costs are lower. Those are your competitive advantages.”

The result of Fresno’s recent introspection has been a plethora of efforts, both public and private, to reverse the brain drain by encouraging local innovation, spurring development in the city’s poorer southern half, livening up the downtown and giving the area’s erstwhile residents a reason to return home.

This city of nearly 458,000 is starting to show some signs of rejuvenation, although much of the evidence is still anecdotal. A 30-year-old artist and builder has returned to develop live-work space, studios and loft housing in the lackluster city center. A new networking group called Fresno’s Leading Young Professionals attracted 400 members in nine months; many of them are what local officials refer to as “boomerangs”: returnees giving Fresno a second chance.

Taking a page out of Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Mayor Alan Autry has convened a Creative Economy Council to help find ways to attract so-called knowledge workers -- the kind of artistic, tech-savvy people every city wants to have -- to a place better known for crop reports than creativity.

And last year the region launched an initiative to create 30,000 jobs that pay almost $30,000 a year. Though such a salary would barely keep a family afloat along the California coast, it would be a big improvement for many here. The Fresno area’s unemployment rate was still high compared with the statewide rate of 4.8% in September, but officials believe the effort has helped cut unemployment to 7.3% from 12.8% in January 2004, when the push began.

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California’s vast Central Valley is one of the world’s most fecund farming regions, but its vast agricultural fields separate midsize cities known for smog and sprawl from rural enclaves bursting with new immigrants.

Fresno, the largest city in the region, has far to go as an economic hub. Just last month, the Brookings Institution gauged Fresno as having the worst concentrated poverty in America. With 43.5% of its poor living in “extreme-poverty neighborhoods,” Fresno even beat out No. 2 New Orleans with the depth of its misery. And Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties rank in the top 10 in America for the percentage of adults without a high school diploma, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

What this means for the region’s young and educated can be summed up in a February headline from the Bakersfield Californian, which ran above a story about Career Day at Cal State Bakersfield: “No jobs to be found here. Recruiters tell CSUB students to move elsewhere for improved career prospects.”

At Fresno’s Bullard High School -- among the top public schools in the city -- 23 of 24 students in Cathy Cirimele’s sophomore gifted English class recently said they plan to leave their hometown as soon as they can. Only six would consider coming back after college.

Ditto for Bullard’s leadership class, where, beyond the traditional adolescent lament -- “There’s nothing to do here” -- many students sense that the city where they were nurtured as children offers diminished expectations for them as adults.

“I want to go to a really prestigious medical school,” said Alexa Green, a 17-year-old senior. “The reason I wouldn’t come back is I want to get the best opportunities I can. [But] I feel bad not coming back to help people.”

Granted, it’s hard to find teenagers who don’t want to leave their hometowns behind, but it is the high number of those with no plans to return that saddens -- but does not surprise -- Assistant Principal Robert Knapp.

“We do certainly lose a lot of kids -- yes, we do,” said Knapp, a lifelong Fresnan whose two college-educated daughters have left the city. “In my mind, it would be much easier to attract the kids if you had a huge industrial complex so the big jobs would be available.”

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Wages in the southern San Joaquin Valley, over a wide swath of industries and positions from chief executive to janitor, lag behind what people can earn in areas where there is a better-educated workforce. For example, a computer programmer in Fresno earned an annual salary of $56,210 in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while that same programmer in Los Angeles made $72,740, and in San Francisco $87,120.

Higher living costs account for part of the difference -- but only part.

It is mainly a question of demand, said Jennifer Montana, president of Advanced Research Technologies, which has been studying the area’s economy on behalf of Cal State Fresno.

“If you have lots of opportunity in, say, computer software design, you’ll attract a lot of talent to the area,” Montana said. “There will be multiple opportunities to advance a career” and wages will rise.

In a 2004 speech, Donavan Ropp, director of the Business Research and Education Center at Cal State Bakersfield, compared Kern County to Nigeria, saying that his region has a Third World economy, with most workers poorly educated and most jobs paying below the statewide norm.

Clearly the southern San Joaquin Valley is a far cry from sub-Saharan Africa. Though the region is heavily dependent on agriculture, the transportation and distribution industry is strong, manufacturing is thriving, and it has a small but growing technology sector. There are two state universities, and many pin their hopes for revitalization on nearby UC Merced, which opened in September.

Still, “we’re not getting the well-educated,” Ropp said. “It’s a Catch-22; there are not a lot of jobs here that demand that.”

Timothy M. Stearns, director of the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Cal State Fresno, remembers back to the 1960s, when the city made the cover of Life magazine as a celebrated center of urban experimentation.

“Somehow we lost that,” he said. “I can’t tell you why. I was gone. I left at 18 and turned my back. All of a sudden we were a place where people had to help us out -- ‘Wait till Sony moves here or Boeing moves here.’ But they’re not. Why would they?”

A third-generation Fresnan, Stearns is the only one of four children in his family to return to the city, where his parents still live in the house they built in 1946. He came back home a decade ago “to see if we could build entrepreneurship back into the mind-set.” He believes that the only answer to Fresno’s dilemma is homegrown innovation.

Young men and women like Reza Assemi and Jarah Euston, however, give local officials cause for some optimism. Both fit the common mold of the Fresno boomerang: Spent formative years here. Check. Left town at the first possible moment. Check. No plans to come back. Check. Came back anyway. Check. Hope to help make Fresno a city where they’d actually like to stay. Check.

Assemi is a 30-year-old artist with a contractor’s license, a penchant for painting in oils on human skulls and a good relationship with the Fresno Planning Department.

He bought a warehouse and turned it into a complex of 25 artist studios; all are rented out, and there’s a waiting list he capped at 20. He bought the former Red Cross headquarters and transformed it into live-work spaces for four artists. His biggest project recently went to the City Council for approval: 34 lofts, 33,000 feet of commercial space and 10 row houses.

Euston, 26, who lives in the former Red Cross building, refers to Assemi, her landlord, as the “poster boy for the new Fresno.” In truth, Euston could be on that poster herself.

After giving up a life as a well-paid, overworked bond analyst in New York City, Euston moved back to Fresno to work at a nonprofit agency doing economic development in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But it was hard to find out what -- if anything -- was going on in Fresno at any given time, she mourned, with no alternative weekly and few entertainment listings.

So she launched the “Fresno Famous” website, which reports “live from the middle of nowhere” and is “dedicated to making Fresno less boring with every issue.” The site is now 18 months old and is Euston’s full-time job. She plans to start an expanded version later this month.

She also has thrown herself into work on the mayor’s Creative Economy Council, which is scheduled to submit its first report by year’s end.

And she figures Fresno is as good a place as any for her and her musician boyfriend to live out their dream: “Maybe we can move back, and all of our friends can move back, and we can make our own little Utopia, and it can be as hip as New York but cheap.”

But this isn’t an open-ended proposition. Right now, she’s not sure if she’ll stay for the long haul.

“I’m not committed to anything,” she said, echoing the sentiment of many of her compatriots.

“If it’s an exercise in frustration to live here and be involved in civic life, I’ll leave.”

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Times staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

South San Joaquin Valley’s brain drain

As the most highly educated residents leave, the percentage of the population with less than a high school education has risen in Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Madera and Kings counties.

Population shifts, 1995-2000

*--* Education level Net migration to/from other Calif. counties 8th grade or less - 6,940 Some high school 494 High school graduate 699 Some college -3,972 Bachelor’s degree -5,546 Graduate degree -289

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America’s least-educated counties

*--* Percentage of adults without high Rank County school diploma 1 Cameron County, Texas 43.2% 2 Hidalgo County, Texas 38.5 3 Tulare County 37.8 4 Bronx County, N.Y. 36.7 5 El Paso County, Texas 34.2 6 Baltimore County, Md. 30.6 7 Fresno County 29.9 8 Kern County 29.4 8 Monterey County 29.4 10 Kings County, N.Y. 26.9

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Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2002 American Community Survey; Public Policy Institute of California tabulation of 2000 census data; ESRI; TeleAtlas; USGS


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