Coachella Valley Windmills at sunset.

Experts Discuss the Coachella Valley’s Future

Tomorrow never knows, but experts can speculate.

Janice Kleinschmidt Attractions, Progress, Vision

Coachella Valley Windmills at sunset.

Wind turbines in Palm Springs.

Nostradamus would surely consider Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers as cheeky upstarts. In March of 2022, MIT announced its creation of an algorithmic “tool that enables people to make highly accurate predictions using multiple time-series data.”

The 16th century’s uber prognosticator (who relied on cosmic calculations to peer into the future) and 21st century skeptics (who use the internet to do almost everything) might point out that — in today’s mad, mad, mad, mad world — past events make an unreliable source for forecasting. Technology, climate change, politics, and other factors cloud the crystal ball.

Nevertheless, we want to know what to expect so that we can plan for it. Thus, Vision turned to experts across different industries to share what they foresee for the Coachella Valley on several important fronts: residential and commercial development, tourism, healthcare, higher education, solar energy, water, and even artificial intelligence.

For Developers, The Only Way is Up

As the Coachella Valley’s nine cities attracted more and more homebuyers, residential developments gobbled up swathes of raw desert. Now, declares Gretchen Gutierrez, CEO of Desert Valleys Builders Association, “Several cities are close to buildout and have no way to acquire more capacity because they are landlocked by other cities.”

Cities that cannot expand laterally to meet state-mandated supplies of affordable housing must “look at going vertical,” she says. That’s a figurately tall order for a region that treasures its vast horizons. “Each city has its own ordinance concerning building-height limitations. The community needs to understand that this is something we have to embrace.” She anticipates multifamily housing units rising up to six stories.

As for commercial development, Gutierrez notes, “We are getting inquiries for logistics centers [like Amazon distribution facilities].” But she thinks that establishing rail stops for freight trains “is a multiple-decades project.”

Gutierrez foresees increases on opposite ends of the retail yardstick: national-brand, fast-food/drive-through eateries and creative, boutique businesses targeting niche markets.

Armando’s Bar

Gretchen Gutierrez, CEO of Desert Valleys Builders Association. 

Tourism: Always in Season

Climate change notwithstanding, the Coachella Valley has become less “in” and “out” of season.

“Hotels perform very well on summer weekends,” says Scott White, president and CEO of Visit Greater Palm Springs. He credits increased offerings in local activities, events, and air service. He also considers Acrisure Arena — which opened in December and has hosted A-list concerts, Cirque du Soleil shows, and monster trucks in addition to professional ice hockey — as a catalyst.

“We recently completed a feasibility study with Riverside County on a sports complex,” White adds, explaining that it would include a range of participatory indoor games.

Ironically for a desert, water-based experiences have established a toehold in resorts and will continue with a surf park being created in Palm Springs.

Noting that approximately 60 percent of the Coachella Valley’s tourist demographic historically came from within the drive market, White says visitors now come from greater distances.

“We are attracting a younger demographic than 10 years ago, and that trend will continue,” he says. “They look at our values of sustainability and inclusion.”

Based on energetic commitment by federal legislators, White is optimistic that passenger rail service from Los Angeles could begin in five to seven years.

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College of the Desert Palm Desert campus.

Higher Ed Will Transform the Desert — Slowly

When Joe Wallace checked, the Coachella Valley had 880 job openings for nurses and an annual capacity at College of the Desert to graduate 44 nursing students. The chairman and CEO of Priority One CV does the math: “If we keep them all here, in 40 years we will have graduated what today’s need is.”

Wallace is “certain about what is going to happen” in five years because of $79 million in state funding for a student center at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino. “That building turns the campus into a ‘real’ college as opposed to a ‘commuter’ college,” he says, explaining that it fills currently lacking student needs for food, health services, counseling, and a library. “The center should be finished in 2027 and fully utilized in 2028.”

Though cybersecurity classes are being introduced this fall, Wallace anticipates engineering classes (requiring labs) remain a future prospect.

Within the next few years, he says, “I believe the state will come up with what it takes for us to have an individual [versus satellite] California State University campus.” The city of Palm Desert donated 170 acres to the university system with the understanding that it would build a CSUPD campus.

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Vincent Battaglia CEO of Renova Energy.

Solar Energy Shines Over Rising Utility Costs

We can choose our computers, appliances, and televisions, but when it comes to powering them, we’re mostly at the mercy of one utility company. That makes Vincent Battaglia’s foresights particularly disconcerting to Coachella Valley residents who get electricity from Southern California Edison or Imperial Irrigation District (IID).

Within the next five years, Battaglia expects, utility rates could more than double, leading to another substantial increase: the number of homes with solar systems. He foresees “grid defection” as residents become aware of their utilities’ shortcomings and the capabilities of solar and battery technology. As for the utility companies, Battaglia says, “They will be broken into ‘special districts’ governed by boards.”

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A field of solar panels.

Healthcare Access and Quality Improving

The person from whom we most want a rosy prognosis is a doctor. Brian Hodgkins, Pharm.D. and executive vice president of clinical operations at Desert Oasis Healthcare, delivers: “We are going to improve upon the physician shortages we have in the Coachella Valley,” he says, noting gains in hospital residencies and recruitment of doctors from other areas.

Hodgkins further sees progress in addressing local healthcare inequities driven by socioeconomic disparities. Desert Oasis has drafted its own plan, works with partners in its outreach, and in 2021 introduced a mobile unit delivering healthcare to places where people work, as well as to senior centers, community events, and, significantly, the unhoused.

“We are going to see more advanced and improved technologies, including AI, that will help us optimize outcomes and leverage the human element to perform better,” Hodgkins asserts. Last fall, Desert Oasis signed on as a pilot participant in Google Health’s Care Studio — a clinician-searchable platform that aggregates patient records.

“I am optimistic about the way healthcare is shaping up in the Coachella Valley,” Hodgkins says. “The effort among organizations to connect and create partnerships has never been more solid.”

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Scenic Palm Desert landscape.

All-of-the-Above Approach to Water for Efficiency

This spring’s flooding in the Northeast underscored the effects of climate change. Californians may find it even more troubling that the Golden State’s annual precipitation fluctuated more than anywhere else in the country — from 50 to more than 200 percent of the long-term average.

A 2021 report from the State Water Resources Control Board states, “Due to warming alone, California will see less of its precipitation fall as snow, which will result in … less natural water storage.”

“Desert dwellers will continue to see the impacts of California’s erratic climate,” says Mark Krause, Desert Water Agency general manager. “[But] water agencies are investing in new water supplies and projects, promoting efficiency, and forecasting needs so that future generations will have the water they need. I see the public embracing this all-of-the-above approach.” Back-to-back droughts and floods may be the new normal, he suggests.

“The good news is that water-conservation programs likely will be, too. Five or ten years from now, we’ll all be more efficient. Technology will play a role in that, especially with advanced metering technology,” Krause says. “State regulations and other pressures may shift the valley toward water budgets that leave less room for lush landscaping.”

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Mark Krause, Desert Water Agency general manager. 

AI Will Transform Tourism, Ag, and Live Performance

ChatGPT, Discord, and their ilk generate more than AI-produced text and images; they generate discussions on technology’s intrusion on human creativity. This summer, Hollywood productions came to a standstill in part over actors’ concern that they would become products of digital simulation.

Scary stuff aside, G Thomas Kerr believes that businesses across the board can benefit from using artificial intelligence and that “the risk lies in not embracing it.”

“No one carried smart phones in 2006. [Apple’s iPhone] hit the market in 2007,” he points out in a look-where-we-are-now tone. “That led to a major shift in how businesses spent ad dollars. AI will see a similar wave in 10 months.”

For the Coachella Valley, Kerr forecasts a significant impact for companies as soon as the next six months. The local economy could make strides in tourism and agriculture, which are grounded in what AI does best: recognize patterns. Kerr notes the way AI can help the hospitality industry personalize experiences, leading to greater customer service and, thus, satisfaction.

Kerr envisions Palm Springs’ Modernism Week organizers presenting a posthumous lecture by, or interaction with, the late architect William Krisel. “I want that ticket,” he exclaims, noting that two “live” Krisel lectures he attended had a lasting effect on him.

Artificial intelligence transforms a landscape we thought we knew — bringing “to life” local legends like Krisel or a global legend like John Lennon. When the announced new Beatles song comes out later this year, we make shake our heads as well as our booties. If the BBC speculation holds true, the tune bears the title “Now and Then.” Maybe we can think of it as “Then and Now.”