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Defying the Odds : San Gabriel Valley: Rising Economic Star


INDUSTRY — On the factory floor of the Zenith Specialty Bag Co. in this aptly named Los Angeles suburb, men and women in hair nets and T-shirts stand at green and gray metal machines that spit out paper bags by the caseload: cookie bags, hamburger bags, French bread bags.

The air is stifling and carries the piquant aroma of printer's ink. Workers wear ear protectors to ward off the din of whirring fans, clanking metal and humming electricity.

But that sound is music to Scott Anderson, president of the 160-employee company his family has run since 1955. It is the sound of commerce, San Gabriel Valley style: unglamorous but unwavering.

"It's been great," Anderson tells a visitor. "The only down year that we've had was 1990, when sales dipped 7%. Prior to that, for 17 years we saw increases every year." With an expected $15.5 million in sales to fast-food restaurants and other customers, this year will be a record, he adds proudly.

In a time of economic upheaval for most of Southern California, when jobs are uncertain and the future unclear, the San Gabriel Valley is defying the odds.

Though numbers are hard to come by, there is evidence that this far-flung region, encompassing 31 cities and 1.3 million people, has weathered the just-ending recession better than the rest of Los Angeles County and stands to outperform it in the years to come.

Jobless rates for most of the valley's cities are lower than the county as a whole. Moreover, from 1980 to 1990, total employment in the valley grew 32%, better than the county's 30.1%, according to the San Gabriel Valley Subregional Plan prepared by the Cordoba Corp. for the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. From 1990 to 2010, the valley's employment growth should outpace the county 29.7% to 22.8%, the report predicted.

Even a casual observer can see that business is good here: from the tony boutiques and restaurants of Old Town Pasadena to the blossoming of Chinese-language signs on strip malls along Colima Road in Hacienda Heights to the steady stream of truck traffic along the 605 Freeway in and out of the warehouses and factories of Industry.

According to economists and executives, the reasons for the valley's success vary:

* The valley has fewer of the aerospace and defense-related industries that hurt the rest of Southern California during the recession and whose jobs are the least likely to return once the economy turns up.

* Comprising communities as disparate as wealthy San Marino and gritty Industry, the valley is also ethnically and economically diverse. And there are large concentrations of the kinds of industries that are expected to do well in the future: health care, services, construction and retail, as well as light, non-aerospace manufacturing.

* With older, well-established Asian American communities such as Monterey Park and Alhambra, and booming newer ones such as Hacienda Heights and Diamond Bar, the valley finds itself the destination for a disproportionate amount of capital and trade from Asian regions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and, increasingly, mainland China.

And the valley remains close to freeways, airports and harbors; has a diverse and skilled work force, and--aside from the heat and smog--a relatively high quality of life. The values here tend toward family, community, tradition and back-yard barbecues, residents say.

"The primary reason we remain here is because our roots go down so deep," said Anderson, whose father was from Alhambra and whose siblings all live nearby. "Being in the San Gabriel Valley . . . enables us to retain and draw on a good employee base in this area . . . and without that, we might have had to look out of state. . . . The quality of our employees enabled us (in part) to weather the recession."

There is also an awakening consciousness among civic and business leaders here that economic development will require not just individual effort by cities, but regional coordination and cooperation--an attitude that has caught on faster here than in the rest of Southern California, officials say.

One effort was to strengthen the old San Gabriel Valley Assn. of Cities, a loosely knit consortium of communities. In March, the group's name was changed to the Council of Governments and its charge broadened to represent all of the valley's cities on planning and economic development issues at the regional, state and federal level.

One example: The council commissioned its own subregional plan document as input into the regional planning document of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, to ensure that valley communities had a voice in setting priorities on dealing with air pollution, water quality, transportation and other issues.

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