Los Banos unemployment ticks up, but economy may be improving

March 30, 2012 

By COREY PRIDE cpride@losbanosenterprise.com

Los Banos’ unemployment rate rose a notch to 21 percent in February from 20.4 percent the previous month.

Despite the uptick, the local economy may be improving slightly — or at least not getting any worse. “Some of our larger companies who ship goods out of the country are increasing their business,” said John Whala, executive director of the Los Banos Chamber of Commerce. “Some of our members are moving to larger facilities. That’s not hiring anyone, but it is growing the business.”

Whala said business people in Los Banos have told him that customers are spending more. He said retail is doing better, especially in the areas of home decor and women’s accessories, which he describes as “bling.” Whala said people are also spending more money on their homes.

Los Banos suffers from chronic double-digit unemployment. In February 2006, during a housing boom that brought several businesses to town because of a growing customer base, unemployment in the city was 12.3 percent.

Brian Cutler, acting director of Merced County Workforce Investment, said high unemployment is typical of Central Valley towns.

“The main industry is agriculture, so unemployment goes down in (harvest) season and goes up when the season ends,” Cutler said. “There are (other) jobs available, they’re not plentiful.”

Workforce Investment assists the unemployed with job training and finding work. Cutler said his organization encourages people to use the skills they have and continue educating themselves.

“Say you’re a roofer, there’s no construction work but you could get certified in solar panel installation,” he said. “As far as finding jobs, we try to drill in on what’s available.”

He said in Merced County there are jobs that need to be filled in the health care industry and manufacturing. In Los Banos, Mayor Mike Villalta said, suspending the Regional Transportation Impact Fee appears to be working.

“Currently, five projects have come to the city since we lowered the RTIF,” Villalta said. “I think we need to do everything we can to create a business-friendly environment. (Also) we’ve got to encourage people to spend locally.”

Villalta declined to state what the projects/businesses are that are planning on coming into the city. Whala said he believes Los Banos will eventually have more job opportunities.

“I’m optimistic,” Whala said. “If people can hang in there, I believe when things turn around we’ll all do good.”

Enterprise reporter Corey Pride can be reached at (209) 388-6563 or cpride@losbanosenterprise.com.

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