A New Economy for Santa Cruz?

tom_honig_sPeople like me who put words on paper are always looking for a trend. I had an English teacher in college who said clues in literature and life come in threes. Later I met a cop who said he didn’t believe in coincidences at all and that CIA agents who don’t see trends are, generally, dead CIA agents.

Following that advice, then, it’s significant that I came across exactly six people in Santa Cruz one day last week who all wanted to discuss the economy. One was a guy who, like me, has spent most of his life in a “legacy” business that’s struggling in the so-called new economy. Another was a guy who was sharply focused on trying to find a job. The other three were simply passersby on Pacific Avenue—one of them a homeless guy who was explaining to his companion that the “real” economy in Santa Cruz was actually lurking under the surface.

I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but that’s not really the point. What fascinated me about these conversations is that the local economy has come into sharp focus around town—and that’s something that hasn’t always been the case.

Later that same day, the Santa Cruz City Council discussed aspects of an agreement with UC Santa Cruz over water usage. As members of the public debated the issue, several speakers—all of them around 40 or under—brought up jobs and the economy as part of the debate.

Again, that’s something new in Santa Cruz. There was a day when land-use issues were debated for hours, and no one except a smattering of old-school business people brought up issues like jobs and the economy. In fact, during one debate—this one over a minimum wage proposal—one speaker went so far as to suggest that the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to Santa Cruz.

The economic reality of Santa Cruz is all too real to those who are trying to build their lives here. Some of the old debates now are the province of aging Santa Cruz figures who bought their homes for $50,000 some 30 years ago and really don’t have to worry about things like a mortgage. In fact, some of these folks bought two or three of these houses, and make a good living by doing nothing more than renting them out.

These are the folks who traditionally have defined land-use issues in Santa Cruz. Take water and UC Santa Cruz. Comfortable old-timers and impressionable student-age voters told the City Council that there’s not enough water to serve a growing UC campus. Of course, those who came of age in Santa Cruz know—or ought to know—that one reason there’s not enough water is that an entire generation of activists thought they could hold a cap on growth by limiting the supply. Their claim now that there’s not enough water is like someone killing his parents and then pleading for leniency because he’s an orphan.

But the debate took on a new wrinkle that night, because some of the younger speakers— those in the early phases of their careers—took aim at the economic issue. They see, correctly, that UCSC is a driver of the local economy, and that—gasp!—a growing campus actually could result in more private sector jobs in a rapidly changing economy.

Here’s the challenge for Santa Cruz. We are, indeed, subject to the laws of economics, and the economy is changing drastically, both here and around the globe. Unemployment stands at about 13 percent in Santa Cruz County, and many of those out of work have lost their jobs as old businesses fade away. Factories like Wrigley’s or even Texas Instruments are long gone. What’s less apparent is that a new economy is rising from the ashes. New jobs will be high-tech—and they’re likely to be entrepreneurial in nature. One irony that’s perhaps lost on older environmentalists is that green business is likely to drive a new economy here and it’s hard to argue that growth of that ilk is bad for the environment.

Many of the old political arguments around Santa Cruz centered on a business versus environment fulcrum. No longer. A younger generation is focused on an improved economy and a protected environment. Growth, under that scenario, will be managed but not stopped.
Good things happen in a growing economy. It’s not just better jobs. A better economy could mean that younger families can afford Santa Cruz and not have to commute over the hill.
Now that would be good for the environment.

Contact Tom Honig at [email protected] Send comments on this article to [email protected]

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