A new Bob's Discount Furniture store is under construction at the Grove at Packwood Creek South shopping center in north Visalia. Photo by David Castellon.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four economic forecasts The Business Journal does every year for each of the four counties in our coverage area.
Despite the announcement in October of its drop from the second to third top agricultural county in the U.S., 2019 has been a good economic year for Tulare County.
Experts forecast that 2020 should be comparable, though the presidential election could impede commercial construction in the county.
“It’s been pretty good,” Paul Saldana, president and CEO of the Tulare County Economic Development Corp., said of this year.
“Employment has continued to grow, and obviously that results in unemployment levels being down” to 8% in October, the latest figures available, he said.
That’s the lowest October unemployment rate in at least three years, said Saldana, noting that just seven years ago the county’s unemployment rate was in the double digits.
As for what has driven the better employment figures this year, he said, “There’s a lot of growth in a variety of different sectors.”
For example, manufacturers in the county have added about 700 new jobs so far this year, while about 400 jobs have been added in the trade and transportation sectors and 900 jobs in educational and health services, Saldana said.
A lot of this growth probably is being spurred by new businesses coming into the county and existing ones expanding, which is also elevating the number of available construction jobs, Saldana said.
Among the recent and major projects in the works are a two new retail centers in the south and north ends of Visalia and construction of a more than 125,000-square-foot UPS distribution hub in the Visalia Business Park. Among the lesser-known construction projects have been modifications of the former Sun Pacific packinghouse in Woodlake that will be used for processing legal cannabis.
“In most communities building permits are active,” said Saldana, adding that’s not surprising considering the average commercial vacancy rate in Tulare County is just 3%, and the push to build more should continue through at least the first half of 2020.
As for the second half of next year, Saldana explained that commercial development tends to slow down in the latter half of presidential election years, as many developers and investors want to wait and see who is elected president and decide how to adjust their plans as a result.
That doesn’t tend to happen among housing developers, said Brian Gilbert, a Visalia Realtor and president of the Tulare County Association of Realtors.
He said sales of homes this year in the county mostly have been good, with the total value of those sales at more than $106.33 million as of the end of October, about a 4 percent increase over the first 10 months of 2018.
But the number of home sales over the first 10 months of this year, 4,629, actually was down about 8 percent from the same period last year, Gilbert reported.
A lot of that likely was due to low availability of housing, because a lot of people have been moving to Tulare County — due in part to job growth and the Valley offering, on average, the best housing prices in the state, with Tulare County’s prices being lower than Fresno County’s.
While new housing construction has been robust in Tulare County, Gilbert noted that the pace still falls far short of what is needed — a problem occurring across California.
As for Tulare County’s main industry, agriculture, the 2018 county crop report brought some good news that livestock sales totaled a record $7.21 billion, but that total wasn’t high enough prevent the county from dropping its second-place standing among ag counties in the nation to third in the nation behind Fresno and Kern counties, respectively.
As for this year, “Overall, things went well. We did not have a lot of problems or issues, with a little caveat on our citrus industry, and in particular our navel shipments,” said Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner Tom Tucker.
Tulare County almond and pistachio farms encountered rough roads in 2018, as years of increased production resulted in too many if the nuts on the market, causing heavy price drops.
But this year, it’s better news, as those prices have largely sprung back, Tucker said.
As for next year, he said he expects good seasons for most Tulare County citrus, with the amount of fruit coming off trees and their sizes likely to be good.
“The dairy industry is the one we’re going to have to wait and see,” as dairies have had to contend with mostly low prices paid for their milk in recent years.