Five years ago, Rick Mumma's daily commute between his house in south Orange County's Nellie Gail Ranch and his Newport Beach office took 25 minutes each way. Gradually the 17-mile trip lengthened to 45 minutes.
So Mumma decided to move his company, Plant Research Laboratories, to Pacific Business Park, a 900-acre center that is breaking ground in the south Orange County community of Aliso Viejo.
Plant Research Laboratories is just one of an increasing number of companies migrating from Newport Beach and parts of central and northern Orange County to the industrial parks and business centers rising up on former ranchland south of the Costa Mesa Freeway.
It was only a few years ago that analysts were ominously predicting that Orange County firms would abandon the county in large numbers and go to San Diego County or to the Riverside and San Bernardino "Inland Empire" and escape Orange County's high housing prices.
But today, real estate experts predict that the development of the south county from a business outpost to a more sophisticated, urban environment is just a matter of time.
The opening of south Orange County as a new business frontier has been spurred by the construction of more affordable housing, the availability of large and attractively priced building sites and worsening traffic congestion for commuters headed to work northbound on the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways or the Pacific Coast Highway.
The 20-year-old industrial complex near John Wayne Airport has been converting to high-rise office buildings, causing land and rental rates to soar and chasing manufacturing firms south as they sell their valuable airport properties and reinvest in cheaper land.
Firms leaving the airport area are being welcomed into large, master-planned business centers, starting with the Irvine Co.'s Spectrum, a 2,200-acre industrial park at the intersection of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways and close to UC Irvine.
"Most originally went down to the Spectrum because the prices were much less than in the airport (environs)," said Jerrold R. Cole, associate vice president of Coldwell Banker, a major commercial brokerage firm.
For example, Cole said, 2 1/2 years ago Parker Hannifin Corp. bought 60 acres in the Spectrum for about $6 a square foot and left the airport area, where the land was priced at more than $20 a square foot because it was being marketed for office buildings.
Bob Rau, president of the aerospace group of Parker Hannifin, said the company "had to grow and we were landlocked," surrounded by hotels and high-rise office complexes near the John Wayne Airport. Land the company owns in the airport area has become "so valuable it doesn't make sense to keep a single-story manufacturing building on it, he said."
Moved in 1986
Rau said Parker Hannifin's 1,000-employee division, which designs and manufactures aircraft flight-control systems, moved to the Spectrum in 1986. Other Parker Hannifin divisions still operating in Irvine, and employing another 2,000 people, eventually will follow.
While the Spectrum--already containing 340 firms and 13,100 workers--is at the leading edge of south county's business development, other south Orange County parks are not far behind.
They include Pacific Park in Aliso Viejo, the 30-acre Saddleback Technology Park and 76-acre High Park in Mission Viejo, 400-acre Rancho Santa Margarita Business Park and 244-acre Rancho San Clemente Business Park.
And over the next five years, industrial development is expected to begin on another 2,000 acres in northern El Toro, where home building is legally prohibited because of jet noise generated at the nearby Marine Corps Air Station.
Unlike earlier south county real estate development that spawned mostly well-to-do bedroom neighborhoods, master-planned communities now appearing in the south county are making a serious effort to provide employment close to new housing. Developers are seeking a balance of housing and employment at the encouragement of county government, which is concerned about the continued overburdening of freeways.
"Our projection is that we will balance workers with residents by the year 2000 south of the (the Costa Mesa Freeway)," said Bryan Speegle, the county's manager of advanced planning. By then, he said, there will be 517,000 workers and 332,000 dwellings in the south county.
Orange County firms are complaining much less about the county's high housing prices since mortgage rates dropped, and such large south county developers as the Irvine Co. and Santa Margarita Co. have made a concerted effort to build less expensive houses and apartments, said Kenton Boettcher, vice president of Newport Economics, a real estate research firm.
Boettcher noted that currently about 80% of all new housing sales are to the south of the Costa Mesa Freeway and 60% are south of Lake Forest.