October 8, 2019 by Ed Coghlan
Economic event in Merced turned spotlight on San Joaquin Valley’s land, people and opportunity
The University of California, Merced was a fitting venue for the Regions Rise Together meeting in the north San Joaquin Valley last week. UC Merced, the youngest of the UC campuses, is the first American research university of the 21st century. Its research agenda on issues of agriculture, water supply and sustainability, forest resiliency and ag tech mirrors the future of the region and the state.
It also is a university of the future in terms of whom it is educating, as interim Chancellor Nathan Brostrom told the gathering of leaders from the region, with first generation college students making up 70% of the 8,200 undergraduate student population.
Regions Rise Together is led by GO-Biz and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) in partnership with CA Fwd and the California Stewardship Network. The Merced event was the fourth of five joint strategy sessions held in inland California to gather input from local stakeholders to understand the challenges that face the inland regions as well as what can be utilized for future economic growth.
“The event offered unique opportunities to inventory the incredible assets of the Valley that both defined our strengths and opportunities and fostered in me a greater sense of how all of us can collaborate together to support rising up our region,” said West Hills Community College Chancellor Stuart Van Horn. “I was delighted to integrate higher education perspectives among and between the various workgroups and sessions.”
In addition to education, the region’s transportation, housing, workforce development, water and air quality and economic development were discussed.
“Again we heard the diverse voices from different sectors and different parts of the San Joaquin Valley coming together to talk about the future of the region that they want to see,” said Lenny Mendonca, the chief economic and business advisor to Governor Gavin Newsom and director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz). For Mendonca, a proud native of nearby Turlock, this meeting was more than symbolic.
“We understand the underdog feeling of inland California,” said Mendonca. “Regions Rise Together is trying to change the mental map of California so there’s more economic balance across the regions.”
Assemblymember Adam Gray thanked Governor Newsom for attention paid to inland California and said it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity and attention that the Governor is giving the region—pointing out that the Valley has land, space, opportunity and the people to accelerate and sustain economic growth in the region.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen echoed the sentiment and said there is “historical cynicism” in the San Joaquin Valley of how the region is treated by the state, pointing that SB 1 was passed with great fanfare but included no money for Highway 99, which connects some many cities in the region.
Olsen also pointed out the region needs to be more insistent on adequate representation on State boards and commissions.
The interconnectivity of the state is felt in the northern San Joaquin Valley, where thousands of people commute to the Bay Area because they can’t afford to live there. Better transit is one answer, while many pointed out more companies could be located in the Valley where costs are lower and workers are plentiful.
Previous meetings up and down inland California have resulted in common theme. While much of coastal California sees inland California a certain way—inland California is not all the same. The differences noted in the three meetings held in the Inland Empire, Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and Merced show that each are distinct economies with distinct opportunities and challenges.
“The state is so complicated with so many different economies, it requires a sharp focus to make sure every region in included,” said California Forward CEO Micah Weinberg. “The Governor is committed to outlining a set of proposals and thoughts to make sure every part of California is heard in how we build a vibrant, inclusive, sustainable and resilient economy.”
The Governor will announce proposals for inland California at the 2019 California Economic Summit in Fresno on November 7-8.
CA Fwd noted that the success of the Merced event was due in great part from help from a number of local and regional partners including Andy Cheasey, San Joaquin Council of Governments; Cori Lucero, UC Merced; Dan Leavitt, San Joaquin Valley Power Authority; Frank Quintero and Stephanie Dietz of the city of Merced; Mariann Kaanon of Stanislaus Community Foundation; Moses Zapien, Community Foundation of San Joaquin and Steve Lantzberger of the Economic Development Association of San Joaquin County.