Abundant sunshine, palm trees at every turn, and a year-round swimming-pool culture have drawn retirees to Greater Palm Springs for decades. Now younger people have begun gravitating toward the desert communities, but for the opportunities as much as the lifestyle.
“The open space and major agricultural, hospitality, and resort sectors open it up for a lot of potential development,” says Carrie Harmon, deputy director of the Riverside County Economic Development Agency, which collaborates with the state, municipal, and tribal governments to support the area’s economic growth.
When it comes to building an attractive place for businesses and young workers, the Riverside County EDA plays an important role. The agency, with about 1,000 employees, has a small but mighty economic team of two dedicated to Greater Palm Springs, also known as the Coachella Valley. A senior staff member based in Indio exclusively serves the eastern Coachella Valley.
“The sky is the limit for new businesses that need to build from the ground up,” Harmon says. “We’re always working to make sure that we have the right infrastructure and programs in place to attract businesses.”
The EDA achieves that by joining Team Riverside County at trade shows; expediting land use and development through FasTrak permitting; developing foreign investment and trade strategies; conducting training to deepen workforce skills; and collaborating with other businesses and agencies to enhance vital industries like agriculture, renewable energy, hospitality, and healthcare.
Assistance and Education
One of the most valuable Riverside County EDA services is technical assistance for site selection and land use. “[We] have an affordability advantage over the coastal areas within Southern California,” Harmon explains. “In order to fully capitalize on this, the county markets vacant land and commercial space that is prime for business development.” The spaces are searchable at rivcoprospector.com.
Businesses breaking ground or in need of a boost can find help at the EDA’s Coachella Valley Small Business Development Center in Indio. It offers concierge assistance as well as programs such as a “boot camp” for business startups.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, SAN BERNARDINO
The Riverside EDA partners with local educational institutions like California State University, San Bernardino in Palm Desert to develop programs that will help grow and improve the area’s workforce.
Workforce development programs also factor largely into EDA programming. “One of our goals is to increase the achievement level of our residents so that when business owners ask, ‘Do you have a pool of people I can draw from to employ?’ that’s something we can offer,” Harmon says, adding that education is also a poverty-control measure. “Our primary philosophy is that the best solution to combat poverty is to expand workforce programs. Ultimately, that pays off in economic development. If we have a skilled workforce, companies will seek us out.”
The EDA works with the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership to “connect the dots” between education and business and partner with the region’s three public K-12 school districts, College of the Desert, and CSUSB Palm Desert Campus. Together, they identify the areas of economic growth, determine the skills needed in the workforce, and develop curricula to develop educated and trained employees.
“It’s important for students to know that not every career path requires a four-year degree — but that it does require some type of training,” Harmon says. “Our program helps set them on the right path.”
In addition to a young local workforce, many retirees offer community support to new businesses. “We have many residents who have had successful careers elsewhere, and so there’s a lot of knowledge and skill here that they can offer,” Harmon says.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WWW.NDAVIDKING.COM
The Salton Sea is America’s renewable energy powerhouse offering the largest and most diverse sources of renewable energy generation on the continent.
Agriculture and Renewables
Lead the Way
The Riverside County EDA continually looks for expansion opportunities in two of the area’s major industries: agriculture and renewable energy.
By supporting farmers via the Riverside County Agriculture Trade Summit, as well as the Ag Trail (agtrail.rivcoca.org) — established in 2013 to map and promote agricultural areas — the county helps feed communities while creating about 12,000 jobs and generating $1 billion each year for the Coachella Valley.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FIRST SOLAR
In addition to agriculture, solar power is a leading industry for the Coachella Valley, where plentiful sunshine allows for more developments in solar innovation.
The community can find more than 100 stops along the Ag Trail, the largest of its kind in the country, from farm stands to healthy food and wine festivals. Local growers supply more than 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, including 95 percent of dates. Other top-producing crops include bell peppers, lettuce, grapes, and citrus.
The ag-friendly environment also creates opportunity for foreign trade. Harmon says, “We aggressively promote exports,” especially to China and other parts of Asia that cannot produce enough crops and where opportunity for trade is fruitful. Electronics, transportation equipment, and machinery are also big exports.
As threats to crop production grow with the evaporation of the Salton Sea (saltonsea.ca.gov), and concerns about climate change rise on the international level, the demand for renewable energy surges. As one of the its largest producers, and with the most advanced sourcing techniques, Riverside County and Greater Palm Springs expect to see more growth in this sector, from solar innovations to geothermal energies sourced near the Salton Sea.
Located 30 miles south of Indio and straddling the Coachella and Imperial valleys, this lake created by Colorado River floodwaters sprawls 365 square miles and was once a thriving recreational area for fishermen, boaters, and water babies. Decades of mandated water transfer, along with the evaporation of fresh water from a sea with no natural outlet for residue minerals and salts, have left the lakebed briny, and the millions of tilapia and roughly 400 species of migratory birds who rest at the sea in need of help. An affordable and sustainable revitalization plan was long debated before a feasible solution broke ground last November at Red Hill Bay.
The new plan, estimated to cost $3.5 billion, will replenish shorelines as they recede and to create a healthy animal habitat by building levies that separate the hyper-concentrated saline depths of the sea, explains Phil Rosentrater, EDA’s deputy director and executive on loan for the Salton Sea Authority. “The idea is not to have a gigantic lake that may, or may not, be sustainable, but to have a shoreline that is protected and has recreational value. Benefits will be seen right away, rather than at the end of a massive public works project.
TOP PHOTO COURTESY OF RIVERSIDE COUNTY; BOTTOM PHOTO BY JOHN SANBORN, PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The Salton Sea Management Plan, due for final approval in December, is designed to protect local communities from dusty shoreline while restoring vital nesting grounds for nearly two thirds of the migratory avian species in America.
“Another key is to manage this in such a way that enhances access to geothermal resources,” Rosentrater says. Holding the country’s greatest geothermal capabilities, the plan could bring huge economic advantages to the area.
The plan, which would pay for some of the restoration and future maintenance, sets out to restore wealth to the recreational economy, create jobs, increase the value of land, and create a fresh canvas for innovation. “What drives me is not just to avert a disaster, but the opportunity that’s here,” Rosentrater beams.
Easier Access on the Grow
Riverside County also operates Thermal’s Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in a Foreign Trade Zone, thereby incentivizing manufacturing through discounts on trade costs. The EDA ensures that companies have access to the airport — which recently made runway improvements to accommodate more cargo planes — so that they can take advantage of its benefits.
“We’re now working with the nearby [Native American] tribes to see if we can get a piece of economic infrastructure that would enhance and create more traffic at the airport,” Rosentrater says. “This port would allow folks who would have to go elsewhere for customs entry to take care of that right here.”
The county also continues to sharpen foreign investment and generate cash flow through the federal EB-5 program, which has offered a visa in exchange for investing capital and creating jobs since the early 2000s. Currently, four hotels and one restaurant — at a combined value slightly under $100 million and creating about 1,200 jobs — are underway.