• The Star Staff

Warehouses are headed for California’s Central Valley, too

By Jill Cowan

Across the Inland Empire, inexpensive single-family homes on large lots represented a California dream for lower-income, often immigrant families who had lived in cramped apartments in Los Angeles or other big cities.

But over the past decade or so, the region has been transformed by the development of enormous warehouses, where companies like Walmart and Amazon sort, package and ship off goods bound for consumers across Southern California and beyond.

The warehouses could be built within a relatively short drive of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as the millions of consumers in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.

Recently, I wrote about how the pandemic is accelerating that transformation by at once boosting the demand for products to be delivered directly to our doors and the demand for jobs — almost any jobs — amid historic levels of unemployment and plummeting tax revenue.

The influx of warehouse jobs has also meant that the primarily Latino and increasing numbers of Black residents of the region must risk their lives to keep going to work in often dangerous conditions, where they’re at greater risk of getting COVID-19.

Now, some observers and community organizers have told me they’re bracing for that wave of change to reach a different part of the state: the Central Valley.

“I think what you’re seeing in the Central Valley now is to some extent what our region saw 12 or 13 years ago,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside.

The Inland Empire was the most feasible place to serve the large consumer market that is Los Angeles without building the enormous warehouses on expensive real estate close to the coast. Similarly, places like Fresno are within a relatively short drive of the wealthy and expensive Bay Area.

“The rents are there; the labor’s there,” said James Breeze, the head of industrial and logistics research for the real estate data firm CBRE. “The Central Valley is going to be the distribution hub for Northern California, Oregon and inland states for the foreseeable future.”

Fresno’s mayor, Lee Brand, said in an emailed statement that e-commerce distribution centers were a critical part of efforts to diversify the area’s economy as it struggles to “achieve the economic success enjoyed by its wealthier neighbors along the California coast.”

Warehouses, he said, bring opportunities for residents who don’t have college educations.

“Their next step could be buying a house or using education benefits offered by Amazon, for instance, to attend college,” he said. “Maybe it improves the lives of their children, allowing them to become the first in the family to earn a degree.”

But for residents and community organizers, the warehouses are harbingers of the same problems they say have followed them in the Inland Empire: pollution and traffic that disproportionately hurt poor communities of color, promises of economic mobility without follow-through and thousands of physically demanding jobs that are at risk of being automated, even if they come with benefits.

And the pandemic has made it more difficult to push back against plans to allow that kind of development in neighborhoods that are already vulnerable.

“Cities across California are fighting for these,” said Grecia Elenes, a senior policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an advocacy organization based in Fresno that has opposed city plans to attract industrial development. “It’s to the point where no one’s benefiting except the company itself — all on the backs of low-income communities, and communities of color.”

Katie Taylor, 74, who lives in southwest Fresno, said she’s concerned about warehouse development around her home. She has lived there for years with her adult daughter who has Down syndrome and requires round-the-clock care.

The neighborhood, she said, is a place where people make do with little — but they thrive.

“This is our home and to bring all this industry in, all this traffic, all the extra pollution,” she said, “It suppresses us even more.”

Local leaders say they see the Inland Empire as a kind of example and cautionary tale.

While Ashley Swearengin was mayor of Fresno from 2009 to 2016, she said, she helped get an Amazon warehouse built in the city. At the time, she said, she told her colleagues: “Having warehouse jobs is not our highest ambition as a community.”

But logistics seemed like a salve for a city struggling with widespread poverty and a dearth of jobs that paid more than minimum wage.

Today, Swearengin said, as president and chief executive of the Central Valley Community Foundation, she recognizes that leaning too heavily on warehouses would be a mistake.

“In Fresno, as far as the eye can see, it’s agriculture,” she said. “In the Inland Empire, as far as the eye can see, it’s warehouses. We’re not looking to replicate that.”

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