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County jobless figures down for good?

March 21, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

Imperial County is shedding perhaps its most infamous distinction — it no longer consistently has the highest unemployment rate in California.

Figures released by the state Employment Development Department show the county's unemployment rate for February dropped to 14.5 percent, ranking Imperial County 48th among 58 counties in the state. February's unemployment rate for the state was 6.4 percent.

February's numbers were the lowest in Imperial County since 1983. Unemployment rates prior to 1983 are not comparable because the information was collected in a different way, EDD labor market consultant Thomas Flournoy said.

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Colusa County had the state's highest unemployment rate in February at 26.1 percent. San Luis Obispo County had the lowest at 3.1 percent.

Imperial County's unemployment rate in January was 16.5 percent. January's numbers were the lowest since March 1989, when the unemployment rate was 15 percent.

The county's record-high unemployment rate was 42.8 percent in August 1983. In recent years the county's rate was as high as 35 percent in September 2000.

Many factors contributed to the county's high unemployment rate, county Office of Employment Training Director Sam Couchman said.

They included a lack of agricultural growth, devaluation of the Mexican peso and the Valley's failure to attract new businesses, Couchman said.

But the county is seeing a steady drop in unemployment. The average month-to-month unemployment rate in 2000 was 26.3 percent. The year 2001 had an average rate of 21.3 percent. Figures for 2002 are under 20 percent.

The county has more jobs now because new businesses such as the Brawley Beef plant, which opened in January, are coming to the area. And existing businesses, such as CalEnergy, U.S. Gypsum and Garcia Food, are expanding, Couchman said.

This county has a relatively small population, so a business like Brawley Beef offering 600 jobs makes a big impact on unemployment numbers, he said.

Louis Fuentes, executive director of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp., said he agrees with Couchman that the Brawley Beef plant helped bring down unemployment numbers.

"Also, the produce market for the past two to three months has been good, so a lot of migrant workers are working. The lettuce market is booming," Fuentes said.

And people who earn money spend money, he said.

Fuentes said he thinks more service-oriented and retail jobs will be created as a result.

He said Mexicali also is a strong influence on the economy of the county.

More people are coming across the border to buy things because a recent tax reform in Mexico designated simple items like CD players as luxury items. Now it's cheaper to buy those items in the U.S., Fuentes said.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Hank Kuiper said the Valley is doing a better job promoting itself.

Economic development has been so successful because of a joint effort between local cities and the county, Kuiper said.

At a recent meeting with the San Diego Association of Governments, Kuiper said he pointed out Imperial County has a lot to offer: plenty of land, affordable housing, a ready labor force and lots of water.

"I suggested to SANDAG, we're their last frontier," he said.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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