Brendan Riley, president of GreenPower Motor Company, stands next to one of his company’s double-decker busses, one of the models of electric-powered school and transit busses the Canadian company plans to build after it constructs it first U.S. manufacturing plant in Porterville. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
When Brendan Riley was hired a year ago to become president of GreenPower Motor Co., he’d never heard of Porterville.
In fact, he had to look it up on his smartphone when fellow executives at the Canadian-based company informed him the small city in southern Tulare County would become home to GreenPower’s new U.S. division.
At first blush, the Valley seemed an odd place to build a plant with plans to manufacture up to 150 all-electric school and transit busses annually, Riley told attendees of a recent industrial summit in Tulare.
“We all know this is where our fruit and nuts and lettuce and all the things we consume come from, and where some of our oil comes from. But we don’t really think of this place as a manufacturing mecca or a hotbed of manufacturing,” he said.
Riley has since changed his mind. He recognizes the level of talent and resources in the Valley, and the price of property is reasonable. The powers that be have also been easy to work with, he added.
“The governments are very helpful and the people are really interested in doing a hard day’s work,” said Riley, who credited Porterville officials with having a pro-business attitude.
And Riley said he sees similar qualities in other Valley communities, noting in particular how well Hanford is working with electric car startup Faraday Future to establish its first manufacturing plant there.
“This is really an ideal place to set up shop, and I really commend my friends at Faraday Future for selecting it. I would have not have thought of the San Joaquin Valley previously,” he added.
While there is no sure-fire method to draw new businesses with large workforces to the Valley, in the last couple of years there have been some major victories.
The planned GreenPower and Faraday plants are two examples, along UPS planning to build a new package distribution hub in Visalia and Arkansas-based Delta Plastics’ announcement last week that it would build a manufacturing and recycling plant near Dinuba.
And construction is underway to build massive distribution centers for Ulta Beauty and Amazon in Fresno, which combined could generate about 3,000 new jobs.
Shovel ready is vital
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand said that Amazon considered building in Fresno five or six years ago, but instead opted to locate its fulfillment center in Patterson.
One of the reasons was that sites being considered here weren’t “shovel ready,” with water, sewage and other utilities built out to the sites, and Amazon wanted to be able to build without having to wait for the infrastructure.
“You’re never going to get somebody there unless you’re shovel ready,” he said.
That’s why the city built up its infrastructure near the “triangle” of vacant parcels near the junctions of highways 41 and 99, Brand said.
And that financial commitment seems to have paid off, as both Ulta and Amazon have facilities underway.
Things also need to be ready on paper, noted Hanford City Manager Darrel Pyle.
“What we found is having something to sell is absolutely mission critical,” and that’s not the case if the areas you want to promote aren’t zoned for industry or housing, he explained.
The speed of business is accelerating, and government needs to keep pace or risk losing out, he said.
“’How fast you can you get a building permit in my hand?’ is something you need to be able to answer, he added. “The faster the better.”
The Valley’s location helps, Brand said, noting that being in the middle of California is a selling point for ecommerce businesses, Ulta and Amazon among them, as they can ship items in a day from here to most anywhere in the state and to some neighboring states.
The right workforce
The central location also worked for Delta Plastics, as it’s close to the center of the state’s most active farming regions, making it easer to deliver agricultural plastics and to collect old plastic for recycling, said company CEO Sean Whiteley.
And while the cooperation and help offered by municipal governments and economic development partners was a big part of the Dinuba site selection, Whiteley said, “It’s important to us to have a seasoned, experienced and trained workforce.”
To that end, he said, Delta did its homework, noting that Dinuba and cities nearby could provide a sufficient workforce, but also that the workforce is largely comprised of people with a good work ethic able and willing to learn a new trade.
Whiteley said there were other parts of the Valley with cheaper land than Dinuba, “But we won’t go there because the labor pool is poor,” along with some other factors.
“We’ve seen it first hand in our company’s history that there are labor forces so poorly trained — problems with truancy and drugs — it’s hard to keep well staffed,” he said.
Whiteley said in addition to a strong worker base, a community should invest in education as well as adult job and career training.
Sweeten the deal
Incentives offered by a city or county can play a big role in a business’ decision to locate in a particular community.
Fresno offered incentives for Amazon to build its $200 million fulfillment center here that included a 90-percent rebate on the city’s share of the property taxes paid on the site, along with reimbursing Amazon for the sales taxes it pays to buy goods and services in Fresno.
Brand’s administration has developed a separate incentive plan in what is admittedly a long-shot attempt to entice Amazon to develop its second headquarters in Fresno, a potentially transformative move that could bring $5 billion in new construction to the city and up to 50,000 new jobs.
Brand’s proposal would have Fresno enter into a 100-year agreement to take 85 percent of the property taxes and other local taxes generated by Amazon and place it in a fund controlled by city and company officials to pay for community improvements.
Brand said local incentives and those offered by the state can help bring in new businesses, but it’s important that cities and counties “don’t give away the farm.”
“The incentives have to match the benefits,” he said, adding that that incentives should be performance-based, tied to how many people a company employs, how much it spends on development and other measurable markers so a corporation faces added costs or loses tax breaks if it decides to pull back on what it promised.