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The Central Valley Has Found Its Voice

A local advocate forms a think tank to help guide the future of the rich agricultural region beset by rapid growth and pervasive poverty.

June 14, 2005|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

When Carol Whiteside zipped along the stage on a Segway Human Transporter smiling like a cat, she was making a point about the future of the Central Valley.

OK, so she was also scratching off one more experience from what she calls "my life checklist" by piloting the gyroscopically balanced, computerized scooter in front of several hundred cheering people.

But in kicking off the eighth annual conference on California's mammoth agricultural heartland while perched precariously on two wheels, Whiteside was doing what she does best: prodding the region to seek out innovation as it copes with the unintended consequences of growth.

"We are always trying to tell people there are options and choices," she said. "In the valley, not only do these make sense for space reasons, but they're good for bike lanes."

Whiteside is founder and president of the Great Valley Center, a Modesto-based think tank that specializes in a region approximately the size of England.

Stretching 450 dusty miles from Redding to Bakersfield, the Central Valley is made up of 19 counties; is home to more state prisons than any other region; perpetually suffers from high unemployment, poverty and teen pregnancy rates; and struggles with unprecedented growth and choking smog. Its population, 6.3 million today, is expected to nearly double by 2040.

"The first thing Carol has done has been to really call serious attention to the challenges and the opportunities facing the valley," said Steve Toben, who was program officer for the environment with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation when it helped fund the Great Valley Center's birth in 1997. "Carol is able to be a spokesperson for a reasoned agenda for constructive policy change."

As the oracle of the Central Valley, the 62-year-old Whiteside has explained the region's challenges and highpoints to elected officials and philanthropists, planners and journalists from coast to coast.

She has interpreted Hanford's marquetitas, or swap meets, to the New York Times and deciphered Fresno, the urban heart of agricultural California, for USA Today. In the Wall Street Journal, she has voiced worry about the proliferation of warehouses where crops once grew; for Associated Press, she has rued how hard her adopted home is on its youths.

And always, everywhere, to anyone who will listen, she has talked about growth and its effect on the region.

"We live in an area with America's highest poverty and America's fastest growth rate," she wrote earlier this year in an opinion piece in the Visalia Times-Delta. "We are the world's most productive agricultural region and suffer the worst air quality in the United States. We need to improve our jobs base and diversification and, at the same time, preserve our strengths and culture."

The occasion for that call to arms was a report by the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress, showing that the San Joaquin Valley -- the southern half of the Central Valley -- gets dramatically less in federal spending per capita than the nation as a whole. At the same time, according to the report, the San Joaquin Valley has a much higher poverty rate than Appalachia.

For many, a deep love for the Central Valley comes from equally deep roots here: a childhood on a farm, a life spent tilling the fertile soil that provides 25% of the U.S. food supply or a connection with the more than 300 crops raised in the flat fields between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges.

Not Whiteside. Born in Chicago, she didn't spend time in the valley until she attended college at UC Davis. On graduation, she left for the Bay Area. She later spent two years in Europe when her husband -- now a Superior Court judge in Stanislaus County -- served in the military.

They moved to Modesto 33 years ago and, this time, she stayed.

Mary E. Grogan, the former director of parks and recreation for Modesto and a longtime friend and admirer, remembers Whiteside as a young mother, teaching cooking part time in a city program and raising two sons: a deeply intelligent young woman with a killer beef marinade.

It didn't take long for Whiteside to win a seat on the school board, then the City Council. She became mayor of Modesto in 1987. When Pete Wilson was elected governor, she headed to Sacramento, where she served as assistant secretary of the California Resources Agency and later as director of intergovernmental affairs.

But life in the leafy agricultural city of Modesto, combined with her years in state and local government, made Whiteside realize that the Central Valley was a neglected region, an unappreciated resource whose future would have a great effect on the state as a whole.

"People on the coast were too busy to care about the valley," Whiteside said in a recent interview. "The rest of California drove through it en route to Yosemite and didn't care that there were 5 million people here ... who would change the future of the state."

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