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Great Valley Center: Things are looking 'Up'

Despite rocky times, the Central Valley has much to be proud of and good things coming, speaker after speaker told a relatively small audience Thursday at the Great Valley Center's annual conference.

For the first time in 13 years, the think tank based in Modesto is holding its yearly gathering of policy- makers and community movers and shakers here, and sessions continue today.

This year's theme, "Valley Up," is putting a decidedly upbeat spin on a region beset by high unemployment, obesity rates and numbers of foreclosed homes. Presenters acknowledged challenges but focused on what's going right, such as improved air quality, more access to the Internet, more high school students heading to college and increased regional planning.

"I valleyed up when I got here from the Bay Area" many years ago, said Luis Molina, Stanislaus County Board of Education chairman. He was among several to use the new rally cry to describe a can-do attitude, in the vein of "man up" or "cowboy up."

Molina spoke proudly of a regional collaborative and the Stanislaus Military Academy as model education programs.

Modesto City Councilman Joe Muratore sang the city's praises while telling a crowd of a little more than 100 that Modesto has a lot of pride and promise. As for the crippling recession, Muratore said, "If you want to change a large organization, you have to do it in times of crisis."

Whether people stayed home because the conference was not held in Sacramento or because they're not traveling as much these days was anyone's guess. Previous conferences have drawn several hundreds of participants, or several times the number that came to the Gallo Center for the Arts.

"We wanted to shake things up this year," said David Hosley, Great Valley Center president, who acknowledged in November that he was taking a gamble with the move. It could be temporary, he said at the time.

Another new feature: interactive audience polling on top issues, with instant results.

Seventy-six percent of respondents don't trust government leaders to contain urban sprawl, and people who think quality of life is improving in the valley barely outnumbered those who don't.

Poll shows resilience

But the poll showed some resilience as well. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they know someone having "uncommon success during trying economic times," compared with 24 percent who said they don't. And people seemed willing to give higher density neighborhoods a try, although respondents were split on favoring renewable energy at a higher price.

As a model of cooperation, Modesto, Ceres and Turlock were asked to explain a new partnership exploring a regional sewer plant, which could sell treated water to irrigate thirsty West Side crops.

Nick Pinhey, Modesto's director of utility planning, said joining forces could help all of the agencies save money. "It makes more sense when you do it on a regional basis," he said.

Genoveva Islas-Hooker described efforts to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to school yards when parents pick up students, in hopes of denting the valley's obesity problem.

"There is a need to valley up and help improve things," Hooker said.

A panel of youthful elected officials urged others to keep energy high while searching for solutions to nagging problems. They included Mary-Michal Rawling, elected in November to the Merced City Council, who said she is from Modesto.

Muratore, 31, also on the panel, said young would-be candidates should serve on local boards or commissions to gain experience and build networks. "Find things that matter and put your heart into it," he said. "When it's time to run, you'll know."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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