John Lehn, right, who has retried as director of the Kings County Job Training Office and turned those duties over to Lance Lippincott, left, is delaying retirement from his other job as president of Kings Economic Development Corp., possibly for a year or more. After that, he’ll also turn those duties over to Lippincott. Photo by David Castellon
After 41 years of helping people find jobs in Kings County and helping businesses locate there, John Lehn has retired.
For about 42 years, Lehn worked in the county’s Job Training Office — 39 of those years as director — which currently serves as a one-stop shop for helping unemployed people find jobs and obtain unemployment benefits.
About 21 years ago, he started wearing a second hat, serving simultaneously as president of the Kings Economic Development Corp., which not only promotes the county and its cities as spots to locate businesses but also works to help potential employers locate here and lines them up with services, incentives and government agencies to help them.
Quite a combo
It’s an unusual mixing of a county-run service and a nonprofit agency, but Lehn sees the two as symbiotic and a natural pairing.
But at the end of April, Lehn, 64, retired from one of his jobs, as director of the county JTO.
On June 4, he was replaced in that role by Lance Lippincott, a law school graduate — though he never took the bar exam — who spent the prior year and a half as deputy director for the Merced County Department of Workforce Investment, essentially a parallel agency to his current one.
As for Lehn’s other job running the EDC, Lehn said the plan is for him to retire and pass that hat to Lippincott too — just not right away.
Irons in the fire
He’s delaying his second retirement largely to continue the process of getting an automobile manufacturing plant for the new Faraday Future electric car lined up and running in a 1-million-square-foot former Pirelli Tire plant on the north end of Hanford.
“The relationships are established at this point, and if you trace it back it’s been about three years since they came here the first time,” Lehn said of the Gardena-based electric car startup, which by some estimates could roll out its first production cars out of Hanford before the end of the year.
Even though a lease on the plant is signed and work is underway to convert it to make cars, Lehn said he still communicates with Faraday officials a few times a week looking to help and make the move smoother.
“Today, I spent a couple of hours looking for office space in the interim until they get a certificate of occupancy,” Lehn said this week.
Learning the ropes
In the months to come, he’ll also teach Lippincott the ins and outs of running the EDC, as well as acquainting him with people at Faraday and other Kings County businesses.
“For something like Faraday, that has a tight schedule, it makes sense and it’s actually a huge benefit to have somebody so familiar with the community to facilitate that going forward,” said Lippincott, adding that he appreciates the extended time with the man preceding him in the job.
“We’re in a unique situation that I really appreciate, because I’ve seen directors come in without this kind of transitional period, and that can be detrimental to relationships. This way, there is a year of transition in between the two,” he noted.
“The longest I’ll be here is through June 2019 — likely — once Faraday is settled in,” Lehn said.
A marketing plan
When he does come in, Lippincott said he doesn’t plan to change a lot, because both the JTO and the Kings EDC are on good paths, though he does intend to beef up the marketing of the county as a place for businesses through greater social media outreach and increase work with other Valley employment programs and employers to increase the number of available job-training programs.
In recent years, the county has gotten a lot of attention from the business world on its own, between the Navy stationing three squadrons of its newest jet fighters at Lemoore Naval Air Station, which is bringing in about 1,500 new people to the area, Faraday Future’s decision to located in Hanford and the creation of the Kelly Slater Wave Co. Surf Ranch south of Lemoore.
The ranch not only is the test and development site for the artificial wave-generating system, but it now is hosting world-class surfing competitions and could become available for people to pay to surf.
“When you think of Kings County, you don’t think of tourism,” with the exception of the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino near Lemoore, which is elevating its profile by adding on a movie theater and bowling alley to attract more family business, Lehn said.
Add to this that Kings County sits between two major California traffic corridors and is centrally located in the state — one of the reasons why Faraday has chosen to set up its manufacturing there, as its initial sales will focus on the Los Angeles basin and the Bay Area — and people are looking here as a more affordable place to live in the state, all are adding up to a boom time for business in the county.
A new day
Lippincott said that’s apparent from the amount of new housing being built in Kings County, noting that it will be completed and available in the next six months.
And amazingly, Lehn noted, a lot of what’s driving the interest in business here is unrelated — Faraday locating its plant here, the Navy’s decision to locate F-35C Lightning II fighters here, development of the surf ranch, lower Valley housing costs.
“Any one would be good. To get three of at the same time? Come on,” Lehn said.
It’s own path
While Fresno officials have tried to promote their city as a hub for online distribution centers — having snagged some big fish in the forms of fulfillment centers for Amazon and Ulta Beauty, as well as The Gap deciding to expand its distribution operation there — Hanford City Manager Darryl Pyle said he doesn’t want Kings County to follow the same route, despite its comparable locale.
He said that on average, manufacturers generate more jobs per square foot of space than distributors, and he wants the local EDC to focus on attracting manufacturing jobs.
Thanks to Faraday, the potential for creating a lot more manufacturing jobs in Hanford and surrounding areas are high, as the car maker likely will draw in manufacturers for some of the parts and components it needs to build cars, Lehn and Lippincott said.
So once Faraday’s operation is up and running, there’s a good chance that makers of steering wheels, car seats, sound systems, car paint or any number of other items could also set up shop here and bring with them new jobs, some rarely, if ever, seen before in this area.
A boost for the Valley
That holds true for other parts of the Valley, where these supporting businesses could settle to be close to Faraday, said Lippincott, noting that car parts — including some for Tesla electric cars — already are made in the Valley.
And if Faraday is successful here, along with businesses supporting it, he said it’s possible other future auto startups also could come here.
Lehn agreed, noting that much of the technology going into the burgeoning electric car market is being developed in the Bay Area. “So why not assemble them here?”
But the growth focus shouldn’t just be on the industrial end, said Pyle, noting that “We were talking with some of our neighboring agencies, and we see growth opportunities — if we wanted to as a group of people — would we [each] be willing to kick in a couple of extra bucks to do some retail strategies as well.”
He said the interest was sparked by discussions city representatives had at the last International Convention of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas, in which representatives from different county EDCs were reaching out to hook retailers, rather than primarily focusing on industrial businesses, as usual.
Pyle said an addition to the Kings EDC’s focus could draw in new or different retailers, from big box stores to chains that are rare or don’t exist yet in this region.