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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

County Border Zone an Economic Hot Spot

October 17, 2000|ROSEMARY CLANDOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — Because of strong business growth fueled by new businesses and burgeoning existing ones, economic analysts and forecasters now consider the region between Calabasas and Thousand Oaks its own economic unit separate from Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The area has thrived, analysts say, because it's close to Los Angeles without being inside the city--with its higher costs, terrible traffic and faltering schools. Also, a few dynamic companies in the area are growing, paying better-than-average salaries and either spinning off new companies or attracting others.

Fueled by the growth of biotechnology and high-tech companies, the expansion is expected to continue, said Bill Watkins, executive director of the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project.

"In large part it is due to Amgen, and we project them to continue to grow rapidly," Watkins said of the world's largest biotechnology company, which is based in Thousand Oaks.

During the last year, Amgen's work force in the area has jumped 36%, from 3,523 to 4,800. Xircom Inc., a network equipment manufacturer in Newbury Park, jumped from 297 employees to 420 during that period, a 41% increase.

Two real estate companies, Fred Sands Realtors in Westlake Village and Countrywide Credit Industries in Simi Valley, also had significant increases in employees, another reflection of the growing economy.

"We are seeing some unprecedented building activity," said Dave Adams, city manager and planning director in Agoura Hills. "We've got more development that will occur in the next 18 months than what has occurred in the last 10 years put together. And that's just in Agoura Hills."

After the aerospace industry bottomed out in the mid-1990s, cities in the two-county corridor tried to attract new businesses. High-tech firms have led the revitalization, said Charles Maxey, dean of the California Lutheran University business school.

The cities of Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills and Calabasas are tightly linked economically because of geography. They are "tied to the hip to Los Angeles," said Watkins. "They are heavily influenced by what goes on in L.A., more so than in Ventura or Oxnard.

"The [Conejo] Grade is a big barrier," he added.

But the area east of the grade and west of the San Fernando Valley has a lot of similarities, Watkins said. "When you look at the data, you've got relatively high property values, high income levels, high education levels and high labor-force participation levels."

Those characteristics make the area appealing to businesses looking to relocate, he said. Once one business comes and succeeds, others tend to follow.

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Thousand Oaks covers 56 square miles, and 40% of that is open space that surrounds the city, which has a low crime rate. "That makes the city very attractive," said Gary Wartik, Thousand Oaks' manager of economic development. "That's why we have the quality of life that we do. All of that contributes to excellent schools, parks and libraries," which, in turn, help appeal to new and existing businesses.

The city also has a program to retain business and work with companies that would be "exceptionally good members of the community," Wartik said.

"We don't offer any financial incentives," he added. "But we work closely with companies to make the planning and permitting process work as smoothly as possible."

Many companies from the San Fernando Valley often look to Simi Valley, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks as places to relocate. Their employees can still live in the Valley and commute a reasonable driving distance, Wartik said.

But if a company chooses to relocate to any of the neighboring communities, Thousand Oaks still benefits. Many people who live or work in Agoura and Westlake Village still shop in Thousand Oaks, Wartik said.

In Agoura Hills, Adams said the city also helps new companies work through the permitting process. The city also boasts about its absence of gross receipts taxes or utilities taxes.

To maintain a close relationship with city leaders in Westlake Village and Calabasas, Adams says he attends monthly meetings at which officials from all the cities address business expansion issues.

That's a good idea, Maxey said. In a recent study he conducted of 262 Ventura County businesspeople, more than 50% saw obstacles standing in the way of future growth.

"People perceive public policy problems," Maxey said. These issues include general regulations on businesses, environmental regulations, work force availability and fees and taxes.

Adams said some business owners have complained about environmental restrictions, but most people seem content.

"All of us out here are probably a little more sensitive to the environment than other cities might be," Adams said. "It is something that our residents have not wanted to concede on, at the risk of diminishing their quality of life. Most developers recognize [this] before they come in and start talking with us."

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While the continued growth at Amgen, as well as the technology corridor over the Conejo Grade in Camarillo, have stimulated the whole area, there are risks, Watkins said.

In a region where driving to work, often in long commutes, is virtually required, the problems in the Middle East could affect the dual-county corridor, Watkins said. "If the flow of oil from the Middle East is cut, we'll see recessions in all the developed economies."

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