Although unemployment numbers still look bleak at the national level, and particularly the state level, on the South Coast of Santa Barbara County, economic conditions appear a bit sunnier. In fact, Josh Williams, founder and principal researcher of the Carlsbad-based economic research firm BW Research, said that at 8.4 percent, Santa Barbara County has the second lowest unemployment rate in the state. Statewide, the unemployment rate is 12.1 percent; nationally it’s 9.6 percent.
Speaking to about 100 business professionals at the 2009 Goleta Economic Summit on Thursday morning, he indicated that Goleta has an even lower rate than the rest of the South County, although his figures didn’t calculate the rate of underemployment-engineers working at Home Depot’s paint counter, for example.
Held at the Fairview Theater in Goleta, the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event featured presentations by area financial advisers, the County Workforce Investment Board, and a panel of speakers covering topics ranging from oil production to real estate. Attendees enjoyed breakfast burritos from Marmalade Cafe and Catering Company, a Los Angeles-based company with a location at La Cumbre Plaza. The prognosis, according to Ben Courtney and Tyler Powell, financial advisers from Wells Fargo who delivered a mid-year outlook, is that Goleta can expect a continuing trend of moderate recovery.
Government, education, and tourism continue to be the leading South Coast employers, but presenters at the economic summit said that the makeup of industry appears to be changing. For instance, healthcare, the fastest-growing sector, created 1,200 new jobs this year. Businesses related to the television and the motion picture industry, and energy and the environment, grew markedly, but their relatively small size in relation to other industries reduced their impact. Williams added that due to fast-paced change and innovation in the green business sector, it makes sense for its labor force to stay versatile. Government entities added 945 jobs to the local economy, but Williams said that due to budgetary problems in Sacramento, the longevity of that particular rise is questionable. Agriculture took a big hit, losing almost 2,000 jobs, and was not expected to recover in the area even after the economy makes an ascent to more palatable levels.
A perennial problem for area businesses was highlighted by an employer survey indicating that recruitment and retention remains difficult due to the high cost of living. “If there is an opportunity for growth without hurting the environment, it should be taken advantage of,” offered Phil Wyatt, owner of Goleta-based Wyatt Technologies and one of the panel speakers. Wyatt said that the Goleta City Council’s historic no-growth stance has hindered economic development, and that there is plenty of space for expansion. Recalling a friend who flew from Santa Barbara to Sacramento, he noted that much of the open space between the two cities is suitable for development, and that with proper management, water supplies can accommodate growth. Wyatt also suggested that the best way to revitalize Goleta’s economy would be to have one or two large businesses in Goleta-much like Delco in years past-offering vast numbers of jobs.
One solution offered as a way to ease unemployment in California was increased oil production. “We produce much less oil than we consume in this state. Almost half of the oil we consume comes from foreign sources,” said Steve Greig, government relations liaison for the oil company Venoco. He added developing all of the untapped reserves in federal waters would create nearly 14,000 new jobs. Although some of the oil produced by Coastal California oil leases can only be used for asphalt production, Greig said that much of what is extracted near Santa Barbara County is refined into fuel-grade products in Los Angeles.
Ever the potent indicator of economic health, the housing and commercial real estate markets were touched upon in some detail as well. With housing prices lower than they have been in years, Reyne Stapelmann, of Prudential California Realty, pointed out that despite the recent burst of the housing bubble, median home sale prices are the same as they were in 2003. “We’re seeing activity, but the bulk in the lower range-first-time buyers and investors,” she said.