Three top Stanislaus County business leaders on Thursday urged San Joaquin Valley residents to try to stay positive and look for ways to take advantage of the region's prolonged recession.
At "This Economy and You: Navigating the Unknown," about 1,200 community members learned about the country's health care reform law, successful business strategies and what's next in real estate.
The free event's headliners were David Benn, regional president of Sutter Health; Dan Costa, chief executive of 5.11 Tactical; and Mike Zagaris, president of PMZ Real Estate.
They spoke in a time of exceptional economic stress with the county's unemployment rate approaching 20 percent.
Costa urged the audience at the Gallo Center for the Arts to take calculated risks and not be afraid of failure.
"It's not if you're going to fail, it's when you're going to fail — you need to learn from them. ... You can't keep making the same mistakes over and over. Then you're just stupid," Costa said to chuckles from the audience.
He stressed that trends and tastes change, and businesses should change with them.
Costa relayed the story of a landscaper who asked for advice on how to keep his business level while people are spending less on yard maintenance.
Costa suggested that the landscaper make bouquets for his clients from their yard's flowers each week with a card asking them to refer their friends. He also recommended looking into making garden kits to help people grow vegetables because organic produce is popular.
"Think about what the consumer is thinking about today and how do I get ahead of it," he said.
Benn summarized key notes of the recently passed 2,200-page U.S. health care reform, saying it helps many people but doesn't address a larger, dangerous issue — Medicare.
"Social Security pales in comparison to Medicare. Medicare is unsustainable the way it's currently structured," he said. While Social Security is underfunded by $7 trillion, Medicare rings in at $38 trillion beyond its funding, he said.
In the next decade, Stanislaus County will see a 45 percent increase in the number of people older than 65, those who are eligible for the medical program, Benn said.
During the question-and-answer period, Benn said the solutions are not politically popular, and so may not be addressed for awhile. He said the benefits structure needs to be changed, possibly making Medicare start at a later age or provide little or no coverage for wealthy people.
Zagaris' comments focused on the recession and the valley's inability to pull out of it. He urged people to work through it by improving their mental health.
The region's economic collapse centers on two things — the unhinging of the agribusiness model prevalent in the valley and the national economic crisis, Zagaris said.
The cheap land, water and labor that have helped the valley's development are disappearing. And, he said, the valley doesn't have the educated or skilled populace to make the necessary transition to diversify the region's economy.
But the valley's "greatest challenge ... is people's relationship with themselves," he said.
Zagaris urged the audience to perform exercises such as thinking of three things they're grateful for daily or spending time with positive, successful friends.
People should focus on goals for their relationships, health, finances and work, he said, that will "remind us what's important in life and help reframe your day."
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.