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Imperial County on the rise

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Imperial County is coming on strong as the next housing growth area in Southern California. It is poised to experience tremendous commercial and residential growth over the next 10 years. Although the size of the market is relatively small at historically about 1,000 housing units per year, several economic factors, as well as pricing well below San Diego County and Indio, should result in significant increase in housing demand in the Imperial Valley in the next decade.

Imperial County is 90 miles east of San Diego County, where housing prices in East San Diego County are currently $423,000 on average. The average home price in Indio, which is only 50 miles north of Imperial County, is $213,000, compared to $176,000 in the Imperial County today.

There are over 35 million people and more than 250,000 cargo trucks that travel through three ports of entry from Mexico to Imperial County every year.

The county encompasses a 4,500 square mile area, which includes over 500,000 acres of irrigated farmland that is among the most productive agricultural regions in the world. The Colorado River forms the eastern boundary of Imperial and the Arizona-California border. The major east-west thoroughfare is Interstate 8, which begins in San Diego and travels east to Tucson. State Routes 78, 86 and 111 provide access to Riverside County and beyond. SR-111 is currently being upgraded from a two-lane conventional highway to a four-lane divided expressway.

Population growth in Imperial County has been strong. The county experienced an increase of 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared to approximately 13 percent for the state and the nation.

As of Jan. 1, 2003 the population of Imperial County is estimated at 150,900 individuals. Estimates by the California Department of Finance place Imperial County's population at 217,500 by 2010 (9,514 new residents per year). Over the next seven years, Imperial County's population is projected to grow by an average annual rate of 5.4 percent, considerably greater than California's growth rate of 1.8 percent. The number of households is expected to increase by almost 24,000 over this same period, which equates to a demand of 3,400 homes per year.

Currently, there are 50,400 jobs in Imperial County. Government accounts for 33 percent of the total jobs, followed by agricultural at 20 percent.

Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is projecting that over the next 27 years, the number of jobs will more than double to 105,100 or an average of 2,026 jobs per year. Although agriculture represents the foundation of economic support for Imperial County, the region has begun to develop a more diversified economic base in recent years, creating greater economic stability.

These forecasts do not include any jobs that may be created from the potential relocation of Lindbergh Field to Imperial County, the establishment of a regional cargo airport, or the growth in construction from a sustained housing boom.

Imperial County has a competitive advantage in future job creation as it can offer inexpensive land, water, power and wages. Water and power have become big issues in the southwestern United States. Imperial County has ample supply of both due to the operations of the Imperial Irrigation District. All water is gravity fed from the Colorado River.

Over the past 25 years, and especially since the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, industrial activity at maquiladoras in Mexicali has exploded. Baja California is home to over 1,000 maquilas, roughly 37 percent of the Mexico maquila market. These companies send thousands of trucks toward Los Angeles International Airport on a weekly basis.

For a number of years, Imperial County and the cities of El Centro, Calexico, Brawley and Calipatria have been working jointly to create a foreign trade zone designation covering most of the county. This zone, yet to be named, was passed with Senate Bill 200. It will allow tax exemptions for companies relocating to the area. This is meant to capitalize on NAFTA by attracting warehousing and other industry that would work hand-in-hand with industry in Mexicali.

Additional job growth in the future will also be driven by the new growth at the Gateway of the Americas. Gateway of the Americas, a 1,800-acre commercial and industrial project that surrounds the Calexico East Port of Entry, will be part of the foreign trade zone. It will provide for a full range of industrial uses, emphasizing base-sector manufacturing and also including wholesaling and distribution, assembly operations, transportation infrastructure, and related support services, including retail commercial.

Employment in the retail sector or the Imperial Valley will get a boost in the future, as the new regional mall becomes a reality in March 2005. Construction is currently under way to build an 800,000-square-foot mall and an adjoining 600,000 square feet of space in peripheral areas. The new mall will bring up to 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

Another big boost to the valley is the construction of a new San Diego State University four-year campus in Brawley. The new campus, which had its grand opening in February 2004, will accommodate up to 4,000 students within the next several years.

With the federal government's war on terrorism specifically targeting the porous Mexican border, the Border Patrol is constructing an enormous headquarters near the city of Imperial. A new federal courthouse also planned for the city of El Centro will add a variety of high-paying and stable jobs to the area.

Imperial County was the only civilian site selected by the San Diego Regional Airport Authority as a future replacement for San Diego's Lindbergh Field. The other sites were Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Camp Pendleton, Naval Air Station North Island and March Air Reserve Base. The airport authority must place a recommendation for the airport's relocation on the November 2006 countywide ballot. The military sites selected have received widespread criticism from several elected officials in San Diego County.

Trisha Ferrand, an economic development coordinator for the county's Community and Economic Development Department, stated that the county is actively pursuing a cargo airport -- a facility that could bring millions of dollars in revenue and create, according to estimates, more than 7,000 jobs.

A market assessment has been completed which supports the creation of a cargo airport due to the county's favorable drive time (over 30 million people within a three-hour drive time), border traffic at both Calexico and Otay Mesa would likely be main feeders of cargo activity and the need to reduce the amount of cargo heading into LAX and Ontario airports as these airports reach maximum capacity.

With projected annual population growth of over 9,500 residents, household growth of 3,400 homes and job creation of over 2,000, Imperial County is on the brink of unprecedented expansion.

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