December 16, 2003 - From the December, 2003 issue

Great Valley Center's Carol Whiteside Opines On Growth Strategies For The Central Valley

With the fastest growing population in the state, the Central Valley is faced with siginificant challenges in housing, air pollution, infrastructure development, and how to balance the need for more jobs against the preservation of an agriculture economy. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Carol Whiteside, President of the Great Valley Center, in which she addresses the emergence of the Central Valley and the challenges of population and economic growth.

Carol, in a relatively short amount of time, the Great Valley Center has become a voice for regional planning and policy development for the Central Valley of California. The Center, for example, held an international vision shaping and timely architectural contest to imaginatively address how to plan for housing 10 million by 2025. Would you assess for our readers what, if any, progress the region has made in its quest to become the architect of its own future?

This is a very long process. The first thing that we are doing is establishing a regional identity. And, we have gained some recognition as a distinct and unique region in the state. We also see everyone from elected officials to economic development investors paying attention to the region and trying to understand both the changes and the opportunities that are here. We are still a long ways away from having a regional plan.

Recently, some in the Central Valley have lamented the silence of the region's political leaders regarding movement on a regional plan. Is that a fair assessment of progress made to date?

I just don't think we're ready for that yet. There's a lot of discussion about how people think about the region outside of their own jurisdictional boundaries. When you have a region that is relatively rural that has grown up without touching adjacent jurisdictions, without having to collaborate or cooperate, without necessarily planning together for roads or housing or whatever, these are new concepts and in many cases are still a ways away. So, the first thing to do is to help people on the most local level think more broadly about their own opportunities and then to continue to aggregate that into larger and larger units.

Sacramento, as part of the region, is clearly the most advanced in this area, but they have a six county COG, and they are already talking about transportation planning and housing and land use on a regional basis. If you're in Fresno or Bakersfield, just talking to the communities in your county, or maybe the adjacent counties, represents a big step. And if you're in Chico or Redding, the mere idea of regional thinking is completely new.

When TPR last interviewed you, you spoke of the growth pressures facing the Valley and the need for a "replacement economy" to facilitate development beyond agriculture. Update our readers on the development of a replacement economy for the Central Valley.

There are a couple of things happening, actually. One of the things that we've been doing at the Great Valley Center is trying to identify strategic opportunities to have economic activity that builds on the region's own strength and not just attempting to duplicate the activity in the coastal economy. I don't necessarily think that Stanislaus County or Merced is going to be the next Silicon Valley. So we've spent a lot of time looking for new opportunities, and actually have found some pretty important ones.

In the Fresno area, there is a cluster that we've identified in water and irrigation technology. More than 200 businesses related to everything from making the PVC piping to designing irrigation systems, making water filters, developing new technologies for water conservation. Those technologies and industrial processes are not only important in this region, but are very exportable to Asia, Europe and South America. In fact, this cluster, now that it's been organized, has sent marketing teams to various continents throughout the world, developing global markets for its products and its technologies. They have initial federal planning money and are planning a global research and development center at CSU Fresno that will be the home of irrigation technology-related research and applied technology.

We also think that the Central Valley has enormous opportunity to become the national, if not the global, center for the research and application of renewable energy. Because of some of the biomass techniques, the anaerobic digestion, the opportunities for solar and wind power, the Valley has a huge opportunity to develop and implement new technologies. Because of the big air quality problems, there is an enormous incentive to move away from traditional energy sources into cleaner renewable energy. Developing the local renewable energy industry not only will help clean up the air, but it will create jobs as well.

We are finding a number of strategies that can be put together to enhance the economic well being of the region and reduce chronic unemployment.

The state's plans for high-speed rail are evolving and a state bond issue is tentatively planned for next year. How migh high-speed rail contribute to economic development in the Central Valley? What's the Great Valley Center's take on the proposed route?

Well, the debate about high-speed rail is alive and well. Many people in the region see it as a huge opportunity for economic development-providing transportation alternatives to facilitate contact with the coastal regions and broadening the workforce available to serve the regional economy. Other people see it as growth inducing and not a very efficient use of public funds. As I say, I think the debate is alive and well.

The Great Valley Center does not have a position on high-speed rail. Our role is to elevate the debate and make sure that people have really good information on the proposal. The EIR is due out some time in the next few months. It's very important that there be a regional response to the high-speed rail project, not just an aggregation of a lot of local responses, because the project clearly is of regional.

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The battle for the construction of UC Merced seems to have finally been won. What contribution might the new UC campus have re economic development in the Central Valley?

UC Merced is under construction. There are people who have a hard time understanding and recognizing the fact that we have a brand new University of California campus that will open for students in 2005. The UC is anticipating that they will have 1,000 students enrolled in 2005. And, they're already offering courses for credit in summer schools and at some sister organizations throughout the region. They're doing a lot of recruiting-working with a lot of elementary, junior high, and high schools to get the student population ready. There is no question about the fact that a new university will have economic development spin-offs. It will attract research institutions; it will create jobs; and, it will be a huge boon for one of the poorest counties in the whole state, and indeed, for all of the San Joaquin Valley.

Carol, in an era of fiscal constraints and legislative term limits, what are the prospects for getting any help out of both local and state governments to advance the economic and planning priorities and programs that the Great Valley Center has been strategically championing?

I actually think that the likelihood is slim. We have operated the Great Valley Center's programs with a couple of core philosophies. The first is that this is a region that doesn't have a lot of resources and doesn't have a lot of options. As a regional intermediary, it's been our job to bring resources into the region-both private philanthropic dollars as well as corporate and individual dollars-that will support local organizations and activities in reaching their goals. So, we have not asked local governments to support those activities, in fact sometimes the things that we think are necessary are the very things that get cut from local budgets. Planning, collaborative processes, visioning, long-range strategic investments are often cut or eliminated in favor of more essential public safety or more immediate or short-term needs. So, what we bring to the table is the ability to think long-term and to be more strategic, and, frankly, we often put the dollars on the table to allow that to happen.

The prospects for money from the state are no worse or no better here than anywhere else. Although, I would argue that because this region has been neglected historically, there is some payback that has to happen. For instance, consider Highway 99, a major thoroughfare that connects Los Angeles to the Bay Area and runs all the way up and down the North-South corridor of the state. Commercial traffic on Highway 99 accounts for 29% of the traffic, contributing to the economy of the state as well as the region, and contributing to the region's air pollution I might add. There are places that still have cross traffic-the freeway system has not been completed. The corridor has never achieved interstate status, so it receives very little federal funding. There are many people, working together on the Highway 99 Task Force who say, "this highway deserves as much attention as Highway 101 or Highway 65 or Highway 205, or any one of the other corridors in the state that have upgraded overpasses and interchanges and have had coordinated strategies from the transportation agencies." So, on the one hand, we don't expect special treatment. On the other hand, this region increasingly expects its fair share and will not allow state and federal agencies to bypass us any longer. Because of the growth and the importance of this region to the state, equal investment has to made here.

Carol, your name was bandied about for inclusion in the cabinet of the new governor. In that context, what are your expectations for the Schwarzenegger administration?

Like everyone else, my expectations are high for this administration. I found the governor very engaged, very interested in policy, very enthusiastic, and very anxious to do the right thing for California. Having said that, every administration, and this one is no different, is going to face the hard reality that we have a high standard of service in California, and we don't always have the willingness to pay for our high standards. Soon this administration, as did the previous ones, is going to have to make very hard choices and trade-offs. It's not likely to be an easy or painless process for the next year as the new Administration rebalances the budget and meet the legitimate needs of California's growing population.

Changing subjects, almost $100 billion dollars will be expended this decade for new and modernized public school facilities. Billions, no doubt, will go to the Central Valley to meet present needs and projected growth. What's being done to thoughtfully integrate these new school facility investments into the neighborhoods to be served?

Those decisions are still being made primarily at the local level. But, there is a growing recognition of how combining the facilities of different government agencies makes good economic sense while more seamlessly meeting the needs of the neighborhoods and the communities. So, you'll see in Modesto, Fresno and in Sacramento some real pushes to integrate the cities' and the school facilities together.

As a former Mayor as Modesto, why is it so difficult to collaboratively plan these new school facilities as the center's of neighborhoods?

The first thing is that historically the legal advice that separate jurisdictions get is that they have legal authority that begins and ends at the letter of the law. Collaboration and cooperation across those jurisdiction boundaries is not easy. People think that their jobs are different. They have different mandates publicly and legally, and they think that they serve different constituencies. I think that when you engage the public and the community gets in to the discussion they are horrified to find that officials draw lines and don't cooperate, because it's pretty easy to see that it not only saves taxpayer dollars, but collaboration provides a better environment for kids and it gives better support to neighborhoods to put communities and schools together. So part of the solution is opening up the process, bringing more community people in to it, and giving the policy makers, the elected officials on both sides of that fence, permission to operate differently.

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