On the job
El Centro, Calif., a small city on the Mexican border, had the highest unemployment rate in the nation — 30 percent — in December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, El Centro City Manager Ruben Duran has doubts about the BLS figures, and the city is investigating why 14,000 people have filed for unemployment in El Centro recently. American City & County spoke with Duran about El Centro's economic status and what the city is doing to improve it.
Q: Why do you doubt the Bureau of Labor Statistics' unemployment rate for El Centro?
A: Typically, you can look at the number of employed versus unemployed to get the [unemployment] rate. If you look at [the numbers for] March 2006, you have 53,532 working [and] 7,406 are unemployed. If you scroll to the very bottom to October , [there are more than] 23,000 unemployed. Where did all these people come from? I've been here six years, [and] there are no more people here than before, or at least, not that many. We added 14,000 people?
Q: Do you doubt that these people are actually living in El Centro?
A: What should be occurring [if the city's population had increased that much] is, I should have no housing available, and we have vacancies.
We do not have a shortage of housing. Maybe these people came from somewhere else, but I don't know where they're living.
Q: What is the current employment and economic situation in El Centro?
A: It's tough like it is everywhere else. There is unemployment; I'm not making less of that, but I don't think it's 30 percent. [Because the city's unemployment rate is usually double the state's rate,] maybe we should be at 15. I go to businesses and ask, 'How are you doing?' Some have cut back, some have actually hired. The point is, we're getting the same kind of stories that I hear from other city managers around the country: it's up and down, it's up and down, it's up and down, and yes, things are tough out there.
Q: Where do you think the additional 14,000 people could have come from?
A: Maybe they were working in Seattle, or in St. Paul, [Minn.], and their families [are] here and they came home [after getting laid off]. A portion of them came from somewhere else and they've come back to live with families. But, that's a guess, and, again our population is not that big to where we would have that kind of [situation]. We're not like San Diego, where people would be piling back in. In rural areas, people tend not to move very far. So, that's just one possibility, but I don't know if that would hold up under any kind of scrutiny. When I've asked this question of [the local branch of the state Office of Employment and Economic Development] they've indicated that they just process the applications and send it on to the regional offices. They don't do the analysis of 'Where do these people come from.' When I've asked if they can tell us who their employers were, of course, that is not available to us.
Q: What do you think about the short film by freelance photographer Mathieu Young on the situation in El Centro that was shown on CNN.com?
A: I could film that same film in Atlanta. We all know where those spots [of urban decay] are. I can't believe that he got every one of those really rough parts of town on film. He left out Main [Street] and Imperial [Avenue] where there are 31,000 cars a day. It's a traffic jam. You've got 2 million square feet of retail that's full of people. He did take the rough end of town, and he filmed it. He just said, 'This is what I found.' Yeah, he did find it, and if we film it again, I could also walk a block away from [where the pictures were shot] where it's just packed with people, and they're all working and people are coming out of stores.
If you watch that film, he picked every spot he could find in about a four-block area that is pretty blighted. The old icehouse, which is that one big building [featured in the film as an example of vacant buildings in the city that the owners cannot sell and cannot afford to demolish], well, we don't put ice in rail cars any more, [which was the original purpose of the building]. They have refrigeration on them. So, much of that was legitimately old buildings.
Q: What is the city doing to improve its economy?
A: We're working with the local companies here and being very successful. [Local steel fabricator E.W. Corp.] went from 25 employees to 180 employees. We assisted them to move to a new location. We assisted them to do the off-site improvements to help their business along. We invested a half million dollars; they invested $19 million.
[One local shipping company] went from a couple of employees to a dozen employees. So, all of our companies, we're growing in 10s and 20s, and quite frankly I'll take those 10s and 20s any day.
Our property tax values in residential are down, like everywhere else, but our industrial values are up. We pick two businesses a month, and we spend a morning with them. We talk about what we're doing as a city and what we can do to assist them [in] their expansion. It's one on one; it's not a survey. We spend a good hour and a half with each of the companies [to understand] what their business is and what [their] challenges are. And, we saw some things that we do that we needed to fix, and we adjusted our processes.