For months it seemed like the much-touted, long-promised economic recovery might never make it to the Mother Lode.
Now, however, there is evidence a revival here in the hills might be more than wishful thinking or politicians' promises.
Consider the positive developments over just the past few weeks:
• Although the chain itself has been reluctant to comment, Tuolumne County Administrator Craig Pedro last month confirmed that a Kohl's department store plans to open in the 55,000-square-foot building once occupied by Gottschalks in The Junction shopping center.
• Tractor Supply, the cornerstone business in a new commercial center at Mono Way and Peaceful Valley Road in East Sonora, has finished construction, hired a local workforce of nearly 20, and is due to open within weeks.
• Some preliminary site work, including tree clearing and soil sampling, began last week on Sonora's long-awaited Lowe's home improvement center at Sanguinetti and Old Wards Ferry roads. The proposed 111,196-square-foot store and 27,720-square-foot garden center, expected to open before the end of the year, is likely to employ more than 100 workers.
• MRL Industries, a Sonora-based firm which manufactures machinery used by high-tech companies, last week announced a major expansion. With a nearly five-fold increase in sales expected over the next several years, MRL expects to more than double its workforce, adding 30 to 40 engineers and 50 to 100 electromechanical assemblers.
These aren't storefronts that may be open today and closed tomorrow. Instead they are major corporations which have made the decision to locate here and are investing millions of dollars in the belief that now is the right time do so.
These decisions go way beyond whim and caprice. National firms like those opening here don't make such moves without extensive market and demographic research.
A brief look at our newest stores and employers:
• Kohl's: Based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., and founded in 1962, Kohl's is the nation's 24th largest retailer and has 1,049 clothing and houseware stores in 49 states. Revenue in fiscal 2009 was $16.4 billion. Total assets are valued at $11.3 billion.
• Tractor Supply: Based in Brentwood, Tenn., and founded in 1938, the 900-store Tractor Supply chain sells home improvement, lawn and garden, livestock, equine and pet-care products. Revenue for fiscal 2008 was $3.07 billion. Total assets are valued at $1.07 billion.
• Lowe's: Based in Mooresville, N.C., and founded in 1946, Lowe's today has 1,717 stores in 50 states, Canada and Mexico. Gross revenues were $48.2 billion in 2008. The chain has 216,000 employees and serves more than 14 million customers a year.
• MRL Industries: The company has been in Sonora for more than 25 years. Its more than 100 employees work in a 100,000-square-foot office and plant off Tuolumne Road in East Sonora. The high-tech parts and engineering firm has grown steadily since moving from the valley to Tuolumne County in 1985. It was purchased in 1999 by Sandvik Inc., a Swedish high-tech engineering group with annual sales of close to $100 million.
Combine the jobs each will likely produce, and you'll like get more than 200, ranging from retail cashiers to the electronic and engineering positions. And the cash they generate could ripple further into the community, creating more sales, more employment and more local tax revenues.
Tuolumne County must build a more diversified economy. We have become far too dependent on public sector employment and low-paying service and tourism-based jobs.
The manufacturing and engineering jobs that MRL is offering are an example of the good-paying jobs and benefits that are needed to grow our local economy. We're hopeful the Standard Mill will come back on-line bringing a return of the good wages and benefits offered by Sierra Pacific Industries.
On another important front, local internet service providers Golden State Cellular and Mother Lode Internet have made significant investments in broadband infrastructure that will extend coverage in our communities that are now poorly served. Their efforts and the capture of state and federal grants to help speed this process are significant. Once successful, robust and high-speed Internet accessibility will make the recruiting of new businesses to the Mother Lode much easier.
The year-old Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority has played a key role in the economic good news, particularly in the case of Kohl's. Executive Director Larry Cope and the authority's board should be commended for their recruiting and promotional efforts.
Let's hope the community at large can build on EDA's success.