While some government agencies have mottled messages about their key goal, the Kern Economic Development Corporation does not.
Its vision is simple. It’s all about jobs. All 4,260 of them, created over the past three years.
That’s an impressive figure that the U.S. Bureau of Labor took into consideration when it ranked Kern County as the number one county in the country for the biggest over-the-year percentage increase in employment with 5.3 percent in 2011, compared with a national job growth of just 1.4 percent.
But creating just the right economic climate to generate those jobs is a delicate dance, one that includes providing incentives to entice new businesses, encouraging expansion of incumbent companies, and creating channels to feed the associated employment demand with a diverse local workforce.
“The best social program is a job,” said Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern EDC. “The value of a job should trump nearly everything.”
That is something Teresa Hitchcock, deputy county administrative officer and liaison for the Kern EDC agrees with, saying, that while some companies will base their decisions to relocate to an area based on financial or tax incentives, there are many other things businesses look for when choosing to relocate or expand.
“We have found that many companies are more interested in the availability and quality of the labor force and expedited processes for construction than they are in financial incentives,” Hitchcock said. “Kern County has been very successful in working with companies to find ways to provide a qualified workforce, and to streamline and expedite permitting processes related to construction.”
And while those things are vital in attracting new businesses to the area, the County also offers a competitive package of financial and tax incentives to help attract and retain companies.
Nevertheless, it’s the cost of doing business that Chapman says is the largest draw.
“We are eighty-five percent of the average cost of doing business in the U.S.,” he said. “Much cheaper than neighboring Los Angeles or San Francisco. We can also provide reasonable access to one of the country’s major ports, and we are four hours from ninety percent of the state’s population.”
Still, a variety of potential business suitors, whose only impression of the area is acquired from market research and census data, often overlook the Golden Empire when it comes to deciding on an area to set up shop.
“If you just look at that stuff, Kern County doesn’t really look all that good,” Chapman said. “That’s why we have to constantly educate people on what the area has to offer.
“We have green grass and affordable living,” he added. “Bakersfield is a big suburb; it’s not just a big brown hill.”
It’s an image Chapman and his team of professionals from both the private and public sectors are working hard to change, by providing a myriad of relocation or expansion services, which include demographics, planning data, infrastructure, transportation figures, and even employee site visits; all of which are geared towards providing a comprehensive view of what Kern County has to offer, to not only would-be businesses, but also the prospective residents that come with them.
The Kern EDC is also instrumental in working closely with the County Planning Department, helping to accelerate permitting processes, and most importantly, communicating the importance of job creation in order to move our economy in the right direction.
And it has.
Over the past 24 years of its existence, the Kern EDC’s role has been significant in bringing some very big moves to our county, including the IKEA and the Famous Footwear relocations to the Tejon Industrial Complex, the Railex move to Delano, and the Men’s Wearhouse distribution center in southwest Bakersfield.
More recently, that mantra can be credited with helping to attract the moves of giant discount retailer Dollar General and Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, to the Tejon Ranch Commerce Center. Then there’s the 400,000 square-foot Baker Hughes expansion in Shafter.
“In the case of Dollar General and Caterpillar, the Kern EDC helped to validate our marketing claim that Kern County is a great place to do business,” said Barry Zoeller, vice president of corporate communications and marketing for Tejon Ranch.
“The Kern EDC served as an independent liaison between the respective companies and the County of Kern and helped to facilitate meetings with the appropriate departments within County government,” Zoeller added.
“Those departments not only verified that everything we had been telling Dollar General and Caterpillar about the speed and ease of permitting in Kern County was true, they then lived up to their billing.”
And while Kern County is best known for its oil and agricultural production, the Golden Empire is rapidly reinventing itself as a major hub of California’s distribution infrastructure.
For nearly a decade, Kern County has been using a “ ‘cluster-based economic development’ approach in its economic strategy,” said Hitchcock.
The county’s cluster-based approach recognizes that economic development builds from a community’s strengths, and that successful economies focus on improving the quality of what they produce and the inputs needed for that, not just on reducing their costs relative to competitors.
One of those strengths being Kern County’s centralized location, instrumental in reducing the cost and time of transporting goods around the state.
“Geographically, we are very attractive,” Chapman said. “With federal regulations on driving times, people can hit their markets and be back to sleep in their own bed at night. You can’t do that anywhere else in California.”
Kern EDC focuses on six industry sectors: Value Added Agriculture, Energy and Natural Resources, Transportation and Logistics, Healthcare Services, Aerospace and Defense, and Tourism.
And Chapman says one the county’s biggest area of growth is in renewable energy.