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COUNTY REPORT / Rebuilding the Economy : Businesses Adapting to a New Climate : Labor: Workers displaced by the devastation of the past four years are shifting gears, striking out on their own or transferring old job skills to new professions.

May 22, 1994|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura-based Bank of A. Levy last month reported a profit of $1.36 million for the first quarter of this year, its first gain in two years.

"I think we are poised very well for the future," said Marshall C. Milligan, the bank's president and chief executive officer. "As the economy improves, we are in position to do a lot of business with existing businesses and new customers, and we are eager to do so."

Ventura County National Bank recently reported a $114,000 loss for the first quarter of 1994, cutting its losses by $1.4 million over the same period last year.

The bank reported a loss of $12.1 million last year, contrasted with a profit of $685,000 in 1992.

It is Ventura County National Bank's semiannual business survey that reveals the strongest evidence of a slow but steady recovery. Nearly 70% of the 603 businesses that responded to the survey said they believe economic recovery is under way.

The survey, released earlier this month, revealed strong sales performance and job creation among companies with annual sales of more than $1 million.

More than half the respondents with more than 100 workers reported increased employment last year, and more than 40% predicted they would hire more workers this year.

And in a trend that bodes well for commercial real estate, about one-quarter of the companies with annual sales of between $5 million and $10 million reported they would need to find more office space this year.

"If these trends continue, we should begin to see measurable gains in 1994 and a healthy recovery under way by 1995," the survey concludes.

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Small businesses were among those hardest hit by recession, according to the survey, and many are still reeling from the effects of four years of trouble.

Yet, the entrepreneurial spirit lives on.

In Oxnard, Louis Carrizales decided to start his own business after getting laid off from Abex Aerospace. The Oxnard company, once the city's largest private employer, announced in 1992 that it would shut down, putting more than 500 employees out of work.

Carrizales is doing the same type of work Abex had trained him to do, but he's now doing it on his own. He has even hired his father, a 33-year Abex employee also cut loose last year.

And in Ventura, a mother-daughter team recently opened a coffee shop in a busy shopping center near Ventura College.

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Cafe College Square is staffed by Ruby Perkins and her daughters, Deborah and Diane Claridge. Between them, they have 60 years of restaurant experience.

They possess no fancy business degrees. They pay themselves minimum wage. And they advertise by dragging out a hand-painted sign and setting it by the street.

Even in this unforgiving economy, the women say they are confident they can make their business work.

"You stick it out and you hang on," explained Deborah Claridge about the family's approach to rising above the economic gloom. "There's a lot to say about good, old-fashioned hard work."

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For years, no one worked harder than those in the real estate industry.

In the mid- to late-1980s, the industry rode a streak of hot sales and fat profits. Then the recession tightened its stranglehold. Housing sales slowed to a crawl and new residential construction dropped measurably.

Today, the industry is just starting to dig out from the downfall.

Ventura County housing sales rose 18% during the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year, the largest quarterly increase since the late 1980s.

More importantly, building activity has started to pick up, with the economy adding more than 500 construction jobs since February.

Despite strict policies enacted to control explosive growth in Ventura County, the issuance of residential building permits countywide jumped by half during the first quarter of this year.

And real estate developers, who track the market the way air traffic controllers track jumbo jets, say they are finally regaining confidence in the economy.

Last month, Winchester Homes proceeded with the fourth phase of a Simi Valley subdivision that stalled years ago when the slowdown hit. Immediately, drywallers and plumbers and tractor drivers went to work. So did sales representatives who show the model homes, and gardeners who tend them.

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Still, the mood is guarded: Until the developer is certain the market has healed, only 15 residences will be built.

"They've been sitting on this for awhile, waiting for the economy to get better," said Dick Moses, who heads the construction crew carving up a hillside that is circled by hawks and chewed by cattle. "I guess it's looking up."

Camarillo-based Pardee Construction Co., the county's biggest housing builder, also is throttling forward with projects put on hold because of the recession-choked real estate market.

"We're going nuts," said Bill Teller, Pardee's project manager for Ventura County. "There has been a marked increase in activity since the first quarter of this year."

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