New report will look at diversification of eastern Kern

John Cox HeadshotBY JOHN COX The Bakersfield Californian jcox@bakersfield.com

So much of eastern Kern County’s economy depends on the area’s two military bases that it’s hard to imagine what would happen if suddenly defense spending were drastically cut, or worse, one of the two installations shut down.

Would Mojave’s private aerospace industry take up the slack? Would there be enough jobs in mining, renewable energy, tourism and related services to support the area’s residents — or would residents be forced to flee in search of jobs elsewhere?

“It’s not about diversifying away from the industries,” said Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corp. “It’s about diversifying within.”

Renewable energy contributes to eastern Kern County’s economy. This is a photo of a wind farm in the Mojave area.

A federally funded study launched this month in California City will take a close look at that very issue, ideally developing practical strategies for making eastern Kern less reliant on the military, and take stock of the existing workforce and other assets outside businesses might find attractive.

To be clear, people involved with the study say they have no reason to believe Edwards Air Force Base or Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake are in danger of downsizing. But with a combined economic output estimated at no less than $2 billion per year, or 5 percent of Kern’s economy, local governments have every incentive to broaden the area’s employment base.

“What we need to avoid is relying on one or two industries,” said longtime eastern Kern resident Bill Deaver, a member of the Mojave Air & Space Port’s governing board.

The study is being funded by a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, plus county staff time valued at $50,000. Believed to be the largest-magnitude undertaking of its kind focused on eastern Kern, the project is expected to result in a final public report from Austin, Texas-based contractor TIP Strategies Inc. by about April 2017.

Unlike similar economic analyses that have been driven largely by data, the study is expected to draw heavily on input gathered in workshops with residents as well as business and government leaders from Tehachapi to Ridgecrest to Rosamond.

An admitted lover of “crazy ideas,” Teresa Hitchcock, one of the project’s coordinators as assistant county administrative officer, said it’s surprising what people can come up with at a meeting. Heeding community input can also help head off problems down the road, she said.

“You don’t want to pursue something that (residents) are going to say, ’We don’t want that here,’” Hitchcock said.

IDEAS TO BUILD ON

These community meetings have not yet begun, but already people in eastern Kern have voiced ideas for what kind of industries might blossom there if only they had wider support or a coordinated push.

Among the proposals most often mentioned is logistics. With strong freeway and airport access, eastern Kern is an important transportation corridor some say could compete with distribution hubs in the Los Angeles basin.

Other potential economic diversification targets that have surfaced involve expanding on what already exists. These include manufacturing related to solar power, light industry and film, not to mention the mainstay of aerospace.

Part of that should involve building on the technological innovation in evidence at the Mojave Air & Space Port and other high-tech operations in the area, said Deaver, the airport board member.

He said one option might be to focus on recruiting a four-year university to the area. But even without that, he said, there exists expertise that might be taken better advantage of.

“Our mines operate with the very latest technology, and God knows what other kinds of opportunities are out there, just waiting to be encouraged!” he wrote in an email.

Tourism is another sector some say could be further developed. Already, tens of thousands of people from outside the area descend on areas like Jawbone Canyon to ride off-highway vehicles. Visitors also flock to Red Rock Canyon, downtown Tehachapi and the Mojave Transportation Museum.

Tehachapi’s economic development coordinator, Michelle Vance, said she hopes the study leads to ideas that might help bring light industrial to the city’s relatively diverse economy.

Experience tells her there are businesses ready to relocate to Tehachapi if only they can be convinced the surrounding area has the right supporting workforce.

“I’ve had companies say, ’Hey, we want to purchase a building, but do you guys have welders?’” she said.

Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden, also a proponent of new light industrial development in her city, said she is glad the study is intended to offer not just regional goals but community-specific strategies.

“I like this idea that the communities, Tehachapi and California City, Rosamond and Ridgecrest, will have similar issues but we also have, I think, different solutions to some of those similar issues,” she said.

EXISTING ASSETS

The diversification study will benefit from the area’s existing business alliances and support programs, noted county Supervisor Zack Scrivner, who represents parts of eastern Kern.

He pointed to a county-sponsored grant program, the Renewable Energy Neighborhood Enhancement Wind Business Investment Zone, and regional cooperative efforts including the Eastern Kern Economic Alliance.

“You’ve got people who are already engaged, people who know their community and know the area in which they’d like to focus,” he said.

One key will be coming up with an inventory of the area’s workforce and industry clusters. That information can then be used not only to measure the viability of various diversification proposals but also market the area to outside businesses.

People involved say another important element will be a list of eastern Kern’s strengths and weaknesses that can be used to drive private investment.

For instance, broadband Internet connectivity is badly lacking in some parts of eastern Kern, resulting in sometimes stark differences between and even within communities, said Kelly Bearden, director of Cal State Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center.

His organization may be instrumental in helping carry out some of the report’s recommendations. The SBDC already sends business consultants to the area to support budding entrepreneurs, and he is hopeful the study will lead to new crowdfunding and other initiatives to raise business capital.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities there are going to come out of this study,” he said.

So does Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corp. A proponent of communicating the strengths of existing industry sectors, he wants to see greater definition of what eastern Kern has to offer so he can share it with businesses outside the area.

With that approach comes a recognition the area already has a solid base on which to build in case one part of its economy were to falter.

“It’s not about diversifying away from the industries,” he said. “It’s about diversifying within.”

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