By C.J. Barbre

Carol Whiteside, president of the Great Valley Center, addressed a crowd of about 100 at the Training and Employment Association Summit (TEA) in Visalia on Oct. 14. According to the program blurb, "The Great Valley Center was established to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of California's Central Valley."

"Our big challenge is how to explain a regional organization to a people who don't have a sense of region," Whiteside said. She showed a picture of the Central Valley taken from space by NASA. The Central Valley stretches from Bakersfield to Redding, incorporating parts of 19 counties and 100 cities. It is about the size of Kentucky, made up of two river watersheds with Sacramento in the middle. The population stands at 6 million and should double to 12 million by 2024, or in two decades.

Whiteside said now is the time to undertake building new roads, schools, water treatment facilities and all the necessary infrastructure for population growth.

Whiteside observed that the ethnicity is changing with more peoples from Mexico, Central and South America as well as Asians and Pacific Islanders. Of course that's true in California as a whole, but she noted that Tulare County is the first county in the region to have a Latino majority.

"Unfortunately elected officials don't reflect the change in the population," which she said is predominantly white. "It's a challenge to help make the transition to bring people of different ethnic backgrounds to reflect diversity," she said, while suggesting that more Latinos take leadership programs. Lindsay City Councilmember Esteban Velasquez took such a program and has been on the council eight years. He is up for reelection next month.

Whiteside said 12 percent of jobs come directly from agriculture and 26 percent are indirect, such as trucking. "As the region urbanizes, we need a replacement economy," she said, using Los Angeles as an example. "When L.A. went out of the ag business, entertainment and defense industries took up the slack." She said the Central Valley lacks diversification.

The often quoted Appalachia figures popped up, with Whiteside saying the Porterville, Visalia, Tulare area per capita income is 308th in the nation, "lower than Appalachia." The highest is San Francisco with an average per capita income of $58,000, which is part of what is making the Modesto area to Nevada a bedroom community for the Bay Area.

"Do we maintain our area as a region, or just become part of a megalopolis from the Bay Area to Reno?" she asked rhetorically. "A question still to be determined."

Whiteside noted that Caltrans is for the first time, presenting a corridor master plan for Highway 99 as a unified link, rather than taking it on in relation to separate cities. "There is no reason for anybody to get off Highway 99," she said. She said promoting Valley assets would promote tourism and "one of the biggest drivers of tourism is wildlife viewing," including bird species and "dozens of critters nobody knows about." She said the Great Valley Center has been negotiating with Caltrans for a 21st Century rest stop that tells about the region, its wildlife and has an alternative fuels gas station. She said it is likely to be located near Tipton.

Whiteside said a high speed rail line was supposed to be launched this year, but was shelved because of the state budget crisis.

Regarding the Valley's notoriously bad air, she said it's an "economic chiller and human killer that we cannot ignore. It's my problem and our problem. Every single one of us has to deal with air quality issues."

Whiteside said Tulare County is doing a good job of keeping development in cities and preserving ag land. "When there is no certainty, we get in trouble. The strategy is to build compact and contiguous cities," she said. She said building on the west side by I-5 would break up farm land faster, because of the need for more east-west roads.

"We can make any plan work as long as we stick to it, but if we change, nobody knows the rules." Whiteside said there is a lot of ambivalence about what people want in the Valley. "If all you do is market cheap land and cheap labor, it's not a good future." She said there was a cluster analysis in the Fresno area and there were 200 businesses identified that are related to water and irrigation. "Every continent in the world is worried about water conservation," she said. "We have an exportable product." Two of Lindsay's largest businesses, NDS and HIT Products manufacture irrigation products and systems. Whiteside said there are millions available in federal grant monies for such businesses.

"We see enormous potential in renewable energy, a huge potential to become the world center for renewable energy." Whiteside said Oroville has the highest per capita use of solar energy in the world. In April 2003, the Oroville Sewerage Commission announced that its wastewater treatment plant, powered by a 520 kilowatt solar system, received an alternative energy generation rebate check for $2.3 million from PG&E, the largest renewable energy system rebate in PG&E history.

Whiteside said wind power and biomass could also create energy and jobs. According to the California Energy Commission, "In the year 2000, wind energy in California produced 3,604 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, about 1.27 percent of the state's total electricity, more than enough to light a city the size of San Francisco. Google offers 1.6 million websites under the topic biomass.

"If all we think about is fixing potholes, all we will have in 20 years is fixed potholes," Whiteside concluded.

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