Joe Mathews 2015-06-06 02:11:36
DON’T TELL THE COAS TAL HATERS, BUT RIVERSIDE AND SAN BERNARDINO COUNTIES ARE DRIVING CALIFORNIA’S COMEBACK The Empire is back. Of course, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a statewide celebration of the remarkable comeback of Southern California’s Inland Empire which encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino counties and their 4.4 million inhabitants. When it comes to this huge section of the state with a population greater than Oregon’s if the good news isn’t being ignored, it’s being spun as bad. The Inland Empire is by far California’s least fashionable region. That’s because it resembles the hotter, grittier, more working-class place the state is actually becoming, not the beautiful, wealthy place we aspire to be. When the I.E. is growing, such gains are dismissed as unwanted or unnatural sprawl; when the I.E. struggles, such pain is considered to be just rewards for an impudent dystopia. The glare on the I.E. was especially harsh during the Great Recession, with some pinning the global economic meltdown on its foreclosure crisis. Unfortunately, that narrative proved so durable that it’s obscured the Inland Empire’s startling recovery. An unemployment rate that topped 14 percent in late 2009 has been cut in half. Housing prices have roared back. If there really is a “California comeback” like one the governor is touting, the I.E. is driving it. If you live near the coast, you may not have heard that the Inland Empire has been leading the state in new business creation or in the construction of industrial space. . Or that the I.E. has been consistently among the state’s leaders in job growth. The really good news is that this turnaround is multifaceted. The region’s logistics industry, which warehouses and moves goods coming in and out of the ports, is booming, with a strong dollar inspiring a spike in imports. Low gas prices are helping the region’s transportation firms and commuters. And retail is back, in a big way. The high-end grocery store chain Whole Foods is even making a push into the area. Of course, this sort of growth—in housing, in retail, in logistics—is considered gauche in California’s loftier (and leftier) precincts. As Inland Empire Economic Partnership chief economist John Husing has pointed out, California’s environmental regulations are essentially at war with four major sectors that could produce more prosperity there—logistics, construction, manufacturing, and mining. And the drought is making the I. E. even more unpopular; photos of drier areas of the Empire often accompany newspaper stories blaming water shortages on supposedly “limitless” growth in today’s low-growth California. Of course, the I.E. has real problems. Poverty rates are among the highest in the state. The education levels of its population are abysmal; only one in five adults in the Inland Empire have a college degree (compared to 40 percent in the Bay Area). And the region’s public health statistics are ugly, with the Inland Empire suffering California’s biggest shortages of primary care and specialist physicians. The good news about all these problems is the enormous potential for improvement. The health care industry is starting to take off inland. The leaders of UC Riverside and Cal State San Bernardino have launched an effort to double the number of local students finishing their degrees. Some experts predict the region’s logistics growth will eventually draw more manufacturing. If the comeback continues, the I.E.’s problems will have more to do with its success. Will the region run out of space for warehouses? Will rising housing costs price out too many families? Will too many people leave the expensive coast and create more traffic? You can be sure that Californians will hear more about these problems than the I.E.’s successes. But these will be good problems for a region to have. As Alien Ant Farm—a band with Riverside roots—likes to sing, “These days are great. There’s work to do.” Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.
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