Can Imperial County Come Back From the Dust?

Kearny Mesa–based Local 569 opened an office in El Centro last year, and Badgley, along with other organizers, has developed a group that includes about 200 workers. The union has launched an electricians’ apprenticeship program and holds classes on Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, commonly known as “OSHA regs” — at least in most places. “There were 25 guys in that class, and most were 40 to 50 years old,” said Badgley. “Most had never heard of OSHA.”

Badgley agreed that Imperial County’s official unemployment rate is misleading: For construction workers, the rate is higher.

Micah Mitrosky, another IBEW organizer, says there was a $4 million federal grant that could have been used for improving county government buildings. The grant would have provided work for local workers and energy-efficiency upgrades for county buildings. After legwork by the union discovered the grant money, and IBEW’s commitment to help with the application, the county failed to pursue the grant before the filing deadline.

Mitrosky shared a June 2010 email exchange between herself and the chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, Louis Fuentes. In the exchange, Fuentes underscored the IBEW’s demand for a project labor agreement that would include a union hiring hall to staff the project. The union says that a local hiring hall is the only legal mechanism for ensuring that projects will hire the county’s unemployed, noting that that hall would be open to hiring nonunion workers, as well as union members.

But for Fuentes, it was a deal breaker.

“We need all available options to create jobs and stimulate our economy,” Fuentes wrote, “but not like this.”

Elsewhere in the email exchange, he noted, “These demands were not supported by the business community of this Valley.”

Calls to Fuentes seeking further clarification of his views were not returned.

“They just sat on it until the deadline passed,” said Mitrosky. “It would have immediately created careers and a training opportunity for craftspeople. They would have the skills to go to work immediately.”

Other union supporters have noted that the county has tried to avoid agreements binding it to pay “prevailing” — read, “higher” — wages for its construction projects.

Imperial County has received about $150 million from the economic stimulus funding passed by Congress last year. But that is about 20 percent below the per capita average for the nation.

“This community does not know how to fight for funding,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comité Civico del Valle, a small organization working on environmental-justice issues. “Local government is not stepping up to the plate.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Timothy Kelley, the 45-year-old chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, is making a case for Imperial Valley’s future. With all his talk of trade trips, foreign investment, and renewable-energy summit conferences held in the region, it’s easy to imagine a booming county economy.

Kelley, who is an Imperial County native, concedes there’s a problem with unemployment. He also insists that the official unemployment rate is an exaggeration. It’s hard to get accurate numbers, he said, in a county of just 167,000 people, especially given the seasonal nature of agricultural work and the movement of migrant labor.

“Our economy has not been shrinking, the number of jobs in Imperial Valley has not been shrinking,” said Kelley. “What has been increasing is the number of people moving to the valley and applying for unemployment here.”

He added: “We have high unemployment, but it’s not 30 percent. It’s probably in the 20s.” Either way, Kelley said, “Unemployment is a figure in the past, and I want to talk about the future. We had 50 Chinese trade delegations visit our county last year. Interest is really picking up from China.” The Chinese have already invested in a couple of major real-estate projects, including a wholesale center near Calexico and a University of Phoenix campus in El Centro. More should be coming, Kelley said. China, in fact, appears to have taken its place in a succession of potential economic saviors for Imperial County. There was an airport proposal, talk of a bullet train, but no trace of either.

As Badgley noted, “Imperial Valley seems to be a place where big, crazy ideas pop up. And it seems many involve tunnels, pipes, three different states, the Mexican border, and the Salton Sea.”

Kelley said there is interest in developing Imperial County as a logistics hub, given its location just across the border from a cluster of maquiladoras. There’s also the county’s huge cattle production — Imperial County tops the state in beef production — and its proximity to big consumer markets in Arizona and California.

“A lot of companies on the Mexican side of the border want to be on the U.S. side,” he said. “A lot of Asian companies want to be in the U.S. and on the Mexican border. This is a very competitive place to do business, and our costs are less.”

But renewable energy remains the biggest hope.

“There are 14 utilities actively interested in projects, and they have 20-, 30-, 40-year lifetimes,” said Kelley. “The potential is great, and it will take years to develop. This year we will have five or six projects under construction. For a lot of people who didn’t think it was real, now they are seeing it.”

Kelley said interest extends beyond electricity-generating projects. “We are dealing with several manufacturers and service industries. So it’s more than just building a power plant and selling energy that could happen here.”

In a world that must go green, or perhaps not go at all, Imperial County has good reasons to believe it’s in the right space at the right time: abundant sunshine to power photovoltaic panels; high-desert temperatures for projects that tap the sun’s heat to make electricity; and vast stores of geothermal energy.

While there’s a better case to make for building renewable-energy facilities near cities and on urban rooftops — which avoids paving over vast tracts of desert and the huge cost and blight of power lines — San Diego Gas & Electric is proceeding with Sunrise Powerlink, the controversial $1.9 billion electric-transmission line that it says will be used to transport cleanly generated electricity from Imperial County westward to the coast.

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This is an incredibly detailed, well-done report on the Imperial Valley. Thank you for the great work. I've never stopped in any of the towns in the Valley, on going to or returning from camping trips in the mountains or desert. But the vast and amazing stretches of land and agriculture are a sight to behold. I'll stop next time and spend some money in a grocery or other business. It's great to have a glimmer of what the reality is for the residents. Luck to them all.

Interesting article, but I think you got a bit disoriented before writing the first sentence: "Driving west on I-8, down from the dry, rugged mountains..." The direction you were headed was east.

and your point being the dried up dog shit is on your left shoe and not the right shoe? How is this correction in this detail going to help anybody, other than the peanut gallery?

All these career politicians have festered this already putrid wound even further. This is a temporary fix for a long term problem. A band-aid on a broken neck if you will. If this was a plant that would create solar panels or some actual manufacturing going on, now we'd be in business, but otherwise, the fix from this is only going to be superficial and only line the pockets of the already rich. I don't think the future of renewable energy is going to be some big hunkin' plant carved out of the land, it's going to have to be on the roof tops of peoples homes. By getting everybody involved as well and doing this on the many abandoned structures that pock mark this desperate landscape. Nothing should be off the table for creating jobs and should look at everything. This is why I left here. Unemployment is much larger than that 30% they say, since they only count people that are collecting unemployment. Screw the idiot in the article that said the number is actually much lower. The only way to get a decent career in the Imperial Valley is to be a government employee, border patrol, the prison or the like. Sucking off of uncle sam's teet isn't gonna do shit for IV, just further destroy it's resourcefulness. The majority of office holders seek for nothing more than to perpetuate their position where they themselves are the only ones that have any stable jobs. People are hungry for growth and are willing to work. The labor is there, the manpower is there and the talent is there to train those lacking in skill to elevate those to the next level that is necessary to bring IV out of this economic mind funk that has been woven into the very fabric and mind set of most residents there. I think it's worth a try looking at the new emerging marijuana industry that's popping up. Now there is a bumper cash crop for you, more $ per acre than any other and besides, it's California's true #1 cash crop. Plus hemp is a viable resource that can be tapped for many industries; construction, textiles, paper, medicine, food and other areas we've yet to even scratch the surface on. There needs to be a culture of excitement and the same tired burned out faces and names with the same 19th century bucket and well mind set are not going to come up with the ideas that are going to take us to the 21st century.

Everybody is going to have to dig deep, hunker down, roll up them damn sleeves and do some actual work. The government cannot and will not be the solution to all your damn problems. You're going to have to save yourselves. I am disgusted with all the politicians and self appointed desert rat royalty aristocracy bullshit. Most polluted river in the western hemisphere runs through Imperial County. The Salton Sea is a result of mistakes by industrial giants in the area. If anything the Imperial Valley has proven itself to be a huge urinal for these power players that don't give a shit about working class families. You all need to be enraged and stand up and say I'm tired of this shit. If you want the things in your life you've never had before you are going to have to do the things you've never done before. Dream. Work. Imagine. Love. Think. Build towards the future, not just trying to take care of a fix this election or whatever enough to make people forget how miserable they are, because the solution is always right around the corner. The whole lot of useless politicians there, they should all be burned at the stake. They make me vomit in my mouth.

Here are three things that could easily transform our entire region:

  1. We need a high speed train from the Salton Sea to SD, this would open up development and allow folks to live in energy efficient home there and also commute to SD via rapid rail.

  2. We should start the plan to clean up the Northern half of the Salton Sea; this would give SD and the entire region another place to store water, increase Real Estate value nearby and also provide a huge recreational area for water sports like Lake Mead.

  3. Install Solar Farms, both wind and photovoltaic panels to help generate electricity for our area!

I also agree with the Author that the $UNRISE link will only add more money to SDG&E, instead of help lessen our dependance on foreign oil!

Something is very awry in the IV. A century ago it was touted as a great agricultural cornucopia as a result of diverting Colorado River water into irrigation. High value crops such as cotton, grains, and fruits (melons) were mentioned as coming in abundance from the area. A few years ago, I read that the number one crop raised in the IV is hay. Yes, boys and girls, we pump huge amounts of water out of the river to raise . . . hay. Doubtless, much of that is fed to cattle raised in the valley, but a large portion of it goes to the suburbs of LA, OC and San Diego to support a growing population of horses. We don't eat horses, we don't milk them, and many are ridden only occasionally. They exist because of human ego and a desire to have them around. And the valley consumes a massive amount of scarce fresh water to raise hay for them to eat. But why is hay the top crop there? It must be easier to grow and cheaper to harvest than those other crops mentioned. As a society, do we really want to use all that water to feed horses?

Solar energy is a great concept, but it should not come to the valley with a free ride and no obligation to pay taxes. If there is no benefit for the residents in having all those solar farms, there should be no farms. Tax incentives are all well and good at times, but they must never be allowed to turn into tax holidays that last forever.

Poor IV, the ultimate in flyover country, deserves better.

"High value crops such as cotton, grains, and fruits (melons) were mentioned as coming in abundance from the area."

With the exception of cotton, all of those commodities do come in abundance from the Imperial Valley. And cotton used to as well, until several imported pests came in and prices dropped, and cotton became unprofitable.

The number one commodity that comes from Imperial Valley is actually cattle. Hay is usually number two, but in 2009 it dropped down to #5. The county is one of the top five counties in the nation for the production of spinach, potatoes, cauliflower, sweet corn, broccoli and onions. It's a top producer of aquaculture and lambs, and many more commodities.

Yes, a lot of hay is grown in the desert. It's a stable, year-round crop that nearly always at least breaks even. Yes, hay is easier to grow and MUCH cheaper to harvest (which is why it usually breaks even or brings at least some profit). Vegetable crops are a lot riskier, so almost everyone grows some hay to mitigate their risk a little bit.

But very little of that hay goes to the coast to feed horses. Some of it does, yes. But that is a very, very small portion of the whole. The majority of it feeds the beef cattle that are the county's #1 commodity, or the dairy cattle that are California's #1 commodity.

As far as solar energy goes, I agree with you. It should not come with a free ride and no obligation to pay taxes. It has potential, but there are lots of other renewable energy sources with potential in Imperial Valley, too.

give those guys back their WATER!!!!!!! :=(

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