Riding a broad-based job expansion and rapidly recovering real estate market, Ventura County's economy is at its strongest point this decade--and poised for more robust growth in 1998, experts said Thursday.
"The economy is very steady," UC Santa Barbara professor Mark Schniepp told 350 business leaders at Oxnard's Hilton Hotel. "There isn't a bad sector we can talk about in the Ventura County economy."
To underscore the heady times, the 1998 Ventura County Economic Outlook released Thursday goes beyond employment statistics and home prices.
The report--UC Santa Barbara's annual study of the local economy--also points to plunging crime rates, high SAT scores and improving air quality.
"Crime is falling like a rock. Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks keep getting safer," Schniepp said. "I'm really impressed with what's going on in this county."
A panel of experts described an economy that has marched out of the recession of the early 1990s, reclaiming eroded home values and weaning itself from dependence on Point Mugu and Port Hueneme Navy bases.
Unemployment is at a seven-year low with last year's rate at 6.5%. Home sales hit their highest level of the decade last year, rising 18% to nearly 7,500 transactions. The median home price climbed to $217,511, up 5.4% from a year earlier.
What's more, the economic expansion appears to have stretched countywide. Cornerstones such as Amgen still fuel growth; the biotechnology giant added several hundred new jobs last year. In Camarillo, the success of the Premium Outlets continues--retail sales there rose by 20% in 1997, to $343 million.
At the same time, the Oxnard Plain--hard hit by the loss of firms like Nabisco in recent years--is in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance. For instance, machine-tool firm Haas Automation, recently relocated from Chatsworth, has 835 people on its payroll.
For 1998, the study forecasts more strong job growth and improved incomes, with annual earnings per worker at nearly $33,000. A sharp rise in consumption is also predicted as residents shell out more money at local malls.
Among the trends:
* Affluent Thousand Oaks, with its strong local job base, popular malls and upscale subdivisions, propels Ventura County's economy.
One panelist even suggested that countywide economic studies may be flawed because Thousand Oaks' robust numbers tend to mask the situation in less affluent west county cities.
Stephen D. Cauley, a UCLA real estate professor, used three-dimensional graphics to show that eastern Ventura County had weathered the housing slump far better than the west.
The numbers bear Cauley out. According to the UC Santa Barbara study, the median home price in the east county last year was $234,118. In the west county, it was $188,889.
"Ventura County is not a single area," Cauley said. "And when we're making forecasts, we need to take [account] of that great diversity."
* Job growth in Ventura County spans everything from sales positions at shopping malls to high-paying posts in the entertainment industry. In fact, the study states that in increasing numbers, outsiders come here looking for jobs.
In recent years, economists have worried that new jobs being created in Ventura County were not necessarily good ones. But in 1997, the county appeared to turn a corner: The average new job paid nearly $30,000, compared to $26,643 a year earlier.
Leading the way with 1,550 new jobs was the broadly defined business services sector, which includes such industries as accounting and software development.
On the other hand, the study portrays a shrinking agricultural industry, with farm jobs dropping by nearly 2,000.
UCLA business professor Larry Kimbell joked that the county has "too much open space," adding that growth-wary residents could miss out on the technology boom.
"Let some growth in," Kimbell said. "I know that's not a popular position, but that's what I'd argue."
* Point Mugu has taken steps to protect itself from military downsizing, Navy leaders said.
Another round of base closures is inevitable, said Stephen Beal, commanding officer at the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station.
But Point Mugu has positioned itself as a site where equipment and personnel from shuttered bases can be transferred inexpensively. As evidence, he pointed to the squadron of E-2 radar planes being transferred this year to Point Mugu from the San Diego area.
The list of positive economic developments--from growth at the Port of Hueneme to the projected benefits from the proposed Cal State Channel Islands--seemed almost endless Thursday. But there were some warning signs.
Ventura, for instance, lags far behind other cities in the county in retail growth, with the Buenaventura Mall expansion still nearly two years away. That city's work force was also trimmed by 17% last year, with 127 jobs cut.
The study also shows that a strong economy can be tough on tenants--the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county is $893.