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May 12, 1988|JOHN O'DELL | Times Staff Writer

Its housing prices are out of sight and its freeways sometimes impassable, but business executives say Orange County is still one of the best places in the nation to be.

The county's economy consistently outperforms the country's, they say, unemployment is almost non-existent, the populace is well-to-do and willing to spend, and the area is ideal for companies hoping to benefit from burgeoning Pacific Rim trade.

And the weather and the life style--for those who can afford it--just can't be beat, executives believe.

Their opinions, collected as part of The Times' executive outlook survey during March and April, provide a broad look at local business leaders' views of the county. The survey was answered by 562 executives, and additional detail was gathered in more than 50 post-survey interviews.

In all, an overwhelming 92% of survey respondents rated business conditions in Orange County today as good or excellent.

The survey found that while many local executives are concerned about the national economy, a bullish 76% believe that the county's economy will continue expanding through the end of the year, and 61% expect their own businesses' financial condition to improve substantially over the next 12 months. And the long-range plans of 76% of the county's business executives call for expansion of their operations here.

The diversity of the county's business base is the main reason for the continuing economic growth, the executives said.

Orange County is home to an estimated 80,000 businesses, and almost 95% of them have 25 or fewer employees, according to Contacts Influential, a company that publishes an annual directory of businesses.

And those workers are spread over a dizzying array of businesses, from agriculture to accounting, carpentry to consulting, retailing to rocketry. According to Contacts Influential, there are 8,500 financial, real estate and insurance firms, 44,000 personal and business service firms, 5,500 construction and development businesses, 16,000 retail businesses and 4,800 manufacturers in Orange County.

"If the steel industry gets hit, you've got real problems in Pittsburgh," said Phillip Siegel, president of Consolidated Reprographics in Tustin. "Or if the auto industry has problems, there goes Detroit. But we're really diverse down here, and I like that.

"If the country goes into a recession, we will feel it much less than the rest of the nation," said Siegel, who came to the county 25 years ago from Des Moines, Iowa, and said he has no intention of leaving.

When asked to identify the single most attractive feature of Orange County as a business address, 44% said the local economy and a striking 30% said the county's climate and life style.

But in follow-up interviews, many who had placed the economy first said the quality of life in the county is a prime factor in its economic health. And discussion of life style often drew impassioned responses from otherwise cool, controlled executives.

"The life style here is unbeatable," boasted Anthony D. Christopher, president of A & J Manufacturing in Tustin and a resident of Corona del Mar. "They envy us all over the country . . . and the girls are much, much prettier here."

Lifelong county resident Floyd Blower, owner of Pacific Western Container in Santa Ana, said he "would sell out before I would move inland."

Land costs make it difficult for many businesses to contemplate expansion in Orange County, and "it's tempting to think about moving to Lake Havasu of some other place where costs are a third of what they are here," said Donald Ray Williams, owner of Trail-Rite, a boat trailer manufacturer in Santa Ana. "But it was the quality of life that brought me here 22 years ago, and it is the main reason I am still here. . . . Even if the economy changed drastically, I would do anything I could to stay here because of the quality of life."

But even the most chauvinistic of the county's boosters readily admit that problems exist: A solid 52% of respondents said traffic congestion and an inadequate transportation system are the county's worst features. And almost everyone interviewed ranked the high cost of land and housing as a major problem, with 18% placing housing prices ahead of traffic as the worst feature of the county.

According to the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, Orange County was the most expensive housing market in the nation in March with a median cost of $199,900 for all types of homes.

Largely because of traffic and housing concerns, only 35% of respondents said the county is a better business location today than in the past, while 44% said they find the county a less attractive place in which to have a business.

A surprising 11% said their long-term plans call for moving some or all of their Orange County facilities to other counties or even other states.

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