An aerial view shows two current buildings at the Gap campus near Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
Written by Gabriel Dillard
By nearly every metric – employment, wages, farm receipts, home prices, construction –2018 proved a banner year for Fresno County’s economy.
And in the opinion of economists, economic development professionals, industry advocates and more, the good times are expected to continue into 2019, even though a number of negative factors may loom over the horizon.
In Fresno, 2018 was a pivotal year that saw California’s fifth-largest city join the ranks of other e-commerce hubs. Fulfillment centers for Amazon and Ulta came online, bringing Mayor Lee Brand even closer to his goal of creating 10,000 jobs in two terms.
Gap was another large acquisition for Fresno. The San Francisco-based retailer announced it would locate an e-commerce fulfillment center in Fresno at its existing campus near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. The decision will create at least 515 full-time employees and generate $80 million in capital investment.
While the Gap distribution center will ramp up over three years, the move has already proven fruitful in the jobs department. Gap last month announced plans to hire 1,127 seasonal workers in Fresno
There are also some bright spots when it comes to the development of more shovel-ready industrial land, which has been a problem for site selectors in the past. The 63-acre Palm Lakes Business Park near the airport recently welcomed its first tenants. Closer to the Amazon and Ulta sites in south Fresno, Caglia Environmental’s proposed 110-acre industrial park won council approval this year, but still faces a challenge to its environmental impact analysis.
While continuing to market to e-commerce operations, Fresno economic developers are shifting their sites to tech companies that may be considering moving some of their operations out of the expensive Bay Area. Larry Westerlund, Fresno’s director of economic development, recently said in a public talk that closing the skills gap with our local workforce would net the well-paying jobs Fresnans hope for.
Speaking of technology, Clovis–Fresno County’s fastest growing city –should next year see a major new project at its Research and Technology Park near Temperance and Alluvial avenues. Construction for the College of Osteopathic Medicine in Clovis started this year. As part of California Health Sciences University, the 100,000 square foot facility would be the Central Valley’s first medical school when it is finished by next year, with classes set to start in 2020.
Clovis Community Hospital is also expected to start adding additional facilities next year. More industrial space is also primed next year for the Clovis Industrial Park and Dry Creek Industrial Park.
“It’s really encouraging to see that commercial industrial demand going in Clovis,” said Andy Haussler, Clovis economic and community development director.
Fresno County farms continue to comprise one of the most valuable farming areas in the world, though a number of factors justify calling the current market conditions “stable,” said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO and executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Water supplies and labor availability have been perennial issues, but now tariffs on crop exports to countries such as China add a new layer of concern.
One of the Valley’s top crops is the prime focus of those tariffs, and a potential source of pain in a protracted trade war.
“Nuts leads the list, but there are many others. Fresh fruits, vegetables and milk are not far behind,” Jacobsen said. “We haven’t felt the ramifications yet, but we don’t know how long this issue will continue to go on, or if it will get worse before it gets better.”
High-speed rail construction activity will continue in Fresno County in 2019, and Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., is bullish on the county’s chances of landing a rail heavy maintenance facility. She recently said she has heard rumbling the site could be chose in early 2019. It would add an estimated 1,500 new jobs, which is why bid packages from areas around Chowchilla, Madera and Hanford are also in the running.
The small communities along Highway 99, such as Fowler and Selma, continue to see new development that should stretch into 2019. Eastside communities including Sanger, Reedley and Parlier are also seeing activity. Impoverished Westside communities continue to face challenges, but the recreational pot industry has created bright spots in communities that have welcomed it, namely Coalinga and Mendota. Cannabis-related industrial development will ring in the New Year in those towns.
A potential market slowdown does weigh on the minds of economists and economic developers, some of whom – namely in Fresno –have described a rush to build to beat a downturn. Haussler with the City of Clovis has a background in economics and calls himself a “armchair Wall Street Journal reader. He thinks 2019 will continue to see the good times roll.
“I’m seeing a lot of projections coming into fruition,” he said. “I’m pretty bullish.”
But, he added, 2020 may be a different story. It’s just too far out to know for sure in this time of uncertainty.