Joe Mathews: Gritty Inland Empire is leading California comeback

The Porcupine Creek Golf Club borders the desert in Rancho Mirage. The Inland Empire, blamed for the foreclosure crisis, is now taking a hit during the drought.
The Porcupine Creek Golf Club borders the desert in Rancho Mirage. The Inland Empire, blamed for the foreclosure crisis, is now taking a hit during the drought. Associated Press

The Empire is back.

Of course, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a statewide celebration of the remarkable comeback of Southern California’s Inland Empire, which encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino counties and their 4.4 million inhabitants. When it comes to this huge section of the state – with a population greater than Oregon’s – if the good news isn’t being ignored, it’s being spun as bad.

The Inland Empire is by far California’s least fashionable region. That’s because it resembles the hotter, grittier, more working-class place the state is actually becoming, not the beautiful, wealthy place we aspire to be.

When it is growing, such gains are dismissed as unwanted or unnatural sprawl; when it struggles, such pain is considered to be penance for an impudent dystopia. The glare on the region was especially harsh during the Great Recession, with some pinning the global economic meltdown on its foreclosure crisis.

Unfortunately, that narrative proved so durable that it’s obscured the Inland Empire’s startling recovery. An unemployment rate that topped 14 percent in late 2009 has been cut in half. Housing prices have roared back. If there really is a “California comeback” like one the governor is touting, this region is driving it.

If you live near the coast, you may not have heard that the Inland Empire has been leading the state in new business creation or in the construction of industrial space. Or that it has been consistently among the state’s leaders in job growth.

The really good news is that this turnaround is multifaceted. The region’s logistics industry, which warehouses and moves goods coming in and out of the ports, is booming, with a strong dollar boosting imports. Low gas prices are helping the region’s transportation firms and commuters. And retail is back, in a big way. The high-end grocery store Whole Foods is even making a push into the area.

Of course, this sort of growth is considered gauche in California’s loftier (and leftier) precincts. As John Husing, chief economist at the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, has pointed out, California’s environmental regulations are essentially at war with four major sectors that could produce more prosperity in the region – logistics, construction, manufacturing and mining.

And the drought is making the region even less popular; photos of drier areas often accompany stories blaming water shortages on supposedly “limitless” growth in today’s low-growth California.

Of course, the Inland Empire still has real problems. Poverty rates are among the highest in the state. The education levels of its population are abysmal; only 1 in 5 adults have a college degree (compared to 40 percent in the Bay Area). And the region’s public health statistics are ugly, including California’s biggest shortages of primary care and specialist physicians.

The good news about all these problems is the enormous potential for improvement. The health care industry is starting to take off. The leaders of UC Riverside and Cal State San Bernardino have launched an effort to double the number of local students finishing their degrees. Some experts predict the region’s logistics growth will eventually draw more manufacturing.

If the comeback continues, the Inland Empire’s problems will have more to do with its success. Will the region run out of space for warehouses? Will rising housing costs price out too many families? Will too many people leave the expensive coast and create more traffic?

You can be sure that Californians will hear more about these problems than the successes. But these will be good problems for a region to have. As Alien Ant Farm – a band with Riverside roots – likes to sing, “These days are great. There’s work to do.”

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.