Ideas were flying furiously at Pacific’s latest “Beyond Our Gates” fact-finding session.
The February session, which focused on economic and “safety net” issues, featured a panel of no less than 17 Stockton and San Joaquin County civic and business leaders. As you might expect, everyone had something to say – much of it positive despite the daunting economic challenges that face not only the city and county, but the entire Central Valley.
Pacific President Pamela A. Eibeck remains committed to “engaging in Stockton and San Joaquin County in new and innovative ways.” The first Beyond Our Gates session, held in January, focused on health care reform. By summer, Eibeck hopes to release a series of recommendations that not only will strengthen the bonds between Stockton, San Joaquin County and Pacific, but actually will help improve the quality of life in our little corner of the world.
Despite the wealth of ideas and comments, a central theme emerged from the February session: the need to develop a cooperative and collaborative approach to tackle city and county economic problems.
The point was underscored in remarks made by Fred Ruiz, the owner of Ruiz Foods, who briefly addressed the group. From humble beginnings – growing from a tiny warehouse in Dinuba and a single truck making deliveries -- Ruiz Foods today employs more than 2,000 people and is the largest frozen Mexican food company in the world. The company started in 1964, when Fred and his father, Louis Ruiz, embarked on a dream to sell frozen Mexican food based upon the family recipes of Fred’s mother, affectionately known as Grandma Rosie. Her recipes are marketed under the El Monterey brand.
“Dinuba pulled together,” Ruiz said. “So, without a doubt, Stockton can do it. “
But Ruiz stressed the undertaking – to solve common problems and strengthen the community – must be a collaborative effort.
“This is not about politics,” Ruiz continued. “This is about how we build a better community; leave your grudges at the door (and) make sure diversity is included in your program.”
For Ruiz, it’s all about education and job creation.
Everyone, even successful companies such as Ruiz Foods, felt the sting of the global recession that some have dubbed “The Great Recession.” Ruiz said his company recently was forced to cut 200 jobs. While that recession technically has ended, the recovery is moving very slowly. In California, signs of the recovery are difficult to find. Unemployment remains in the double-digits statewide, as well as throughout the Central Valley. And when things do get better, the economic landscaped will have changed dramatically, according to economists such as John Mitchell.
“There’s a new reality out there,” he said. “You will have to make tough decisions that impact people’s lives. Remember, you’re trying to protect the whole county, not just a part of it.”
Ruiz said the state’s education system, especially kindergarten through 12th Grade, is a mess. He said it’s a terrible mistake to push every student into a college or university. By doing so, he said, we have sacrificed vocational training programs. The workforce of tomorrow needs every tool available, and education, he said, needs to step up and meet the challenge of better preparing the students who one day will make up that workforce.
Government leaders also need to step up, said Ruiz, who believes Sacramento and Washington would serve all of us better if our elected officials approached their jobs as if they were running a business. As it stands now, he continued, “Government doesn’t get it.”
Dumping more taxes on businesses is a “one-size-fits-all” approach that doesn’t work. As Ruiz pointed out, raising taxes only will impede job creation. Still, Ruiz doesn’t rule out raising taxes if such taxes are targeted for a specific purpose and levied for a specific period of time. Once the goal is met, Ruiz said the tax should be abolished.
“It takes a community to create jobs,” Ruiz said, “if you don’t do it who else will?”
That, of course, is at the heart of the matter. We need to identify the community’s most pressing economic problems and then fix as many of them as possible, as soon as possible.
The last thing we need is yet another good-intentioned study sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.