A collection of San Joaquin Valley water technology companies is attempting to make Fresno the center of the "flow technology" world. Representatives of dozens of companies have been meeting regularly for nearly two years as part of the Water Technology Industry Cluster in hopes of boosting business and improving the San Joaquin Valley's economic status.
The cluster and California State University, Fresno, are trying to attract dollars to build a center at the university for research and development, testing, certification, education and marketing. The cluster has also joined with Fresno City College and Reedley College on a work force training program.
The effort has grown from a three-year-old study by Collaborative Economics for the Great Valley Center. The Palo Alto-based consultant found a number of indicators of poor economic health in the region. During the 1990s, construction and retail activity driven by rapid population growth was a major component of the regional economy. Yet the study reported that the labor force grew faster than jobs, and per capita income declined by about 5% in constant dollars from 1990 to 1997.
The study recommended the region move away from being a low-cost center and join the technology-driven global marketplace. To do this, the study urged the cluster approach, in which businesses in the same field collaborate on many fronts. Consultants identified six "opportunity areas" for potential clusters, all of which they said were "nascent and require significant scale-up to create critical mass."
The study's findings and recommendations gave San Joaquin Valley leaders something with which they could work.
"The prognosis was the regional economy was only going to get worse," said Ashley Swearengen, executive director of the Central California Futures Institute at CSU Fresno. "We missed the last wave (of prosperity) and every indicator was that we would miss the next wave."
With financial assistance from the Irvine Foundation, the cluster that has taken shape is in the field of water technology, which the study called "precision irrigation technology." Fresno State is already home to the Center for Irrigation Technology, and some of the world's leading companies in the area of moving, restricting, filtering and treating water are based in a region that stretches from Kern County to Modesto. Plus, many people see the provision, cleaning, recycling and conservation of water as a growing issue worldwide. The first cluster meeting was in April 2001.
"I really thought it was kind of a dumb idea," said Claude Laval, whose company, Claude Laval Corp., makes filtration equipment. "Most of these people had not collaborated with each other. Most of them hated each other."
Laval helped get people to attend the first meeting anyway. Since then, Laval has become a cluster co-chair. "It's better than waiting for some automobile manufacturer to build a factory in Fresno," he said.
The semi-monthly meetings now draw 60 to 70 people from around the country. Meetings are not all hugs and kisses, but people are talking and finding more common ground than they knew they had. Members now speak of "cross-fertilization."
Swearengen, who has helped get the cluster going, saw many "false barriers" because people in similar businesses had not communicated with each other. "The group felt very under-the-radar and very fragmented," she said.
Once they started seeing what they had in common, cluster members established three priority areas: Work force preparation, export development and promotion (including joint marketing at trade shows), and one-voice advocacy.
Much of the cluster's effort is tied to the proposed water tech center, and not only for improved research and development. Already, trade delegations from around the world visit the San Joaquin Valley because of its reputation for agricultural production, Swearengen said. However, to learn about the latest in water technology, those visitors have to go from farm to farm to see individual components. The water tech center would showcase the region's technical and manufacturing capabilities in one place.
Fresno State has agreed to donate land for the center, and cluster leaders believe a requested $2 million federal grant will receive approval. If the federal money comes through, it will leverage private sector donations, Swearengen said.
In the meantime, the work force program is moving forward. Cluster members agreed they had trouble finding certified welders, CNC machinists and maintenance mechanics. Manufacturing, noted Swearengen, is the heart and sole of the cluster.
"This is an area of huge unemployment," said Laval, "but you can't find anybody that you need."
The cluster is working with the two community colleges, which already have vocational programs but experience high drop-out rates, said Russ Densmore, a cluster member and vice president of operations for American AVK, which makes valves and fire hydrants. The cluster is setting up internships and work experience programs to encourage students to finish two-year vocational programs and to provide workplace skills.
The cluster is focused on growing existing businesses, a strategy recommended in the original Great Valley Center study. Everyone involved agrees that growth will require greater export of products and technology. Some companies already have an international presence – American AVK is owned by a Danish holding company, for example — while others need help making connections overseas.
And there is hope that new water tech companies will open in the region, and existing businesses located elsewhere will move to the valley.
"We're already beginning to see people moving into this area because they see all of the testing and research facilities in the area," said Laval, who noted two small companies from Montana and Oklahoma have relocated.
In the end, what cluster members want to see is more decent-paying jobs available in the region. Past economic development efforts have focused on call centers and logistics, which often pay little above minimum wage, noted Laval, a member of the Fresno Business Council. Certified welders typically command $20 to $25 per hour, he noted.
Ashley Swearengen, Central California Futures Institute, (559) 278-8433.
Claude Laval, Water Technology Industry Cluster, (559) 255-1601.
Russ Densmore, American AVK, (559) 452-4300.
International Center for Water Technology website: www.icwt.net
Economic Future of the San Joaquin Valley study: www.greatvalley.org/nvc/nvc_publications.aspx
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