For much of this decade, Orange County was eclipsed by the shining star in the north of the state. While our local economy continued to languish in recession, the San Francisco Bay Area was experiencing a second Gold Rush. When Orange County was struggling to free itself from economic malaise and the county government's bankruptcy, much of the Bay Area region--propelled by the Silicon Valley's booming computer and high-technology industry--was enjoying job growth and economic prosperity.
But now, Orange County's troubles are behind us. We are in an unprecedented era of solid job growth, modest population gains, low inflation rates, strong housing appreciation and declining crime rates. State budget surpluses are giving much-needed funding to reducing class sizes in local public schools. The sales tax that local voters passed a few years back is being put to good use in expanding the overburdened local freeway system.
It is no wonder that the 1998 Orange County Annual Survey finds the county's mood very upbeat. Ratings of the county's economy and quality of life are at all-time highs. Residents are feeling bullish about the county's future. A giddy optimism has set in, and some are now predicting that Orange County is on track to become the next Silicon Valley.
We thought it would be useful to provide a reality check on these high aspirations. We can see how Orange County measures up against the Bay Area in ratings of jobs, traffic, housing, schools and the quality of life through questions asked in the 1998 Orange County Annual Survey and the 1998 statewide surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Bay Area residents are considerably more likely to say they are "very satisfied" with the job opportunities in their region than are people in Orange County (46% vs. 33%). But enthusiasm over the job market does not extend to other domains. Only 10% of Bay Area residents are very satisfied with the availability of housing they can afford locally--compared with 22% in Orange County.
Only 7% are very satisfied with the Bay Area's cost of living, compared with 16% in Orange County. Bay Area residents are twice as likely as people living in Orange County to say traffic is a big problem (54% vs. 26%). Bay Area residents also report more concerns about population growth and development than do Orange County residents (38% vs. 26%).
The Bay Area's boom also has taken a toll on its local public services. Only 38% rate their freeways and roads as good or excellent, compared with 60% in Orange County. Only 39% give Bay Area schools high marks, compared with 57% in Orange County. Ratings are lower in the Bay Area than in Orange County for police protection (66% vs. 78%) and parks and public recreation (70% vs. 78%).
When it comes to quality of life, Orange County is on par with or better than the much-vaunted Bay Area lifestyle.
In all, Orange County seems well-positioned to compete for the new jobs and fast-growth companies that would otherwise locate in and around the Silicon Valley. But what lessons do the Bay Area's experiences have to offer Orange County?
While the economic boom has resulted in many good jobs throughout the Bay Area, the influx of new residents has caused traffic gridlock and upward-spiraling housing costs. Public schools and other local services also have suffered. As Orange County reaches for the goal of being the state's job machine, it could also be hit by some unwanted side effects of economic success.
If we aspire to be the next Silicon Valley, then Orange County's public and private institutions will need to find ways to accommodate the transportation, housing and service demands that high-tech growth will inevitably bring. Yet it is too early to count out the Silicon Valley. A distinct advantage it has is a high level of cooperation among local businesses, governments and nonprofits trying to tackle the region's problems.
The Bay Area has forged public-private partnerships, such as Joint Venture Silicon Valley, the Bay Area Council and Technet. Orange County, by contrast, is mired in a battle over the El Toro airport proposal, which is dividing North and South County, and cities and county government. An active approach, in which local leaders acknowledge the problems and cooperate on finding regional solutions, rather than arguing and pointing fingers, may prove to be the Bay Area's most important lesson for Orange County.