Near-nonexistent budgets for government travel and conferences were to blame for poor attendance at the Great Valley Center's 13th annual conference, the Modesto-based center's president said.
Also, a move from the conference's previous home in Sacramento to Modesto may have accounted for some empty seats, David Hosley acknowledged Friday, despite enthusiastic endorsements from many participants.
Previous forums up north drew several hundred people, but sessions at the upscale Gallo Center for the Arts drew little more than 100 Thursday and dwindled to less than that Friday.
Several officeholders and staff members from around Modesto often drove to Sacramento in prior years to hear dynamic messages, gain inspiration from renowned speakers and fortify professional networks. This year — with no travel required — no Stanislaus County supervisors and no Modesto City Council members were spotted in the audience, except for Councilman Joe Muratore, who appeared on a panel Thursday and did not attend Friday.
Tracy City Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert, who has attended 12 of the center's 13 conferences, said her city covered her entrance in years past. This year, "I didn't even ask" for the $315 fee, she said, and paid her own way.
Nonprofit organizations used to send significant numbers as well, but Hosley said such groups also appear to have cut back.
Amanda Hughes, who volunteers at Modesto Junior College, came up with the money to keep on top of valley issues and "to stay sharp," she said. Although many presentations seem geared toward bureaucrats, residents and others are welcomed and often buy tickets.
"It's incredibly inspiring to feel that energy and find people who legitimately want to make the Central Valley a better place," said Morgan Woolf, a student at the University of California at Davis.
But it's a shame, Hughes said, that many people this year won't carry back to their communities the many ideas and examples of best prac- tices presented at the conference.
For instance, Denair dairyman Ray Prock on Friday explained that his strategy to combat anti-"factory farm" rhetoric is to use social networking such as Twitter or blogs and other new media to communicate directly with consumers. He was quoted last week in a San Francisco Chronicle article, and Time magazine printed his letter to the editor.
POM Wonderful's Lynda Resnick shared the marketing genius that carried her Central Valley pomegranates and pistachios to the global marketplace. Diane Smith talked about raising $30 million for a wireless collaborative.
"I thought the content of the conference was real strong," Hosley said. The Great Valley Center helped some attendees with scholarships but could not overcome agencies with hemorrhaging budgets that can't afford travel or training, he said.
The conference attempts to draw from all points in the valley, from Redding to Bakersfield.
As for the move to Modesto, "You have to take risks," Hosley said.
A tentative plan is to return to Sacramento next year and alternate between there and other valley venues, he said, but firm decisions won't be made for a few weeks.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.
Feedback from attendees of the Great Valley Center's 13th annual conference, held in Modesto on Thursday and Friday:
"It never fails that several speakers relate directly to my job." — Kim Anderson, San Joaquin Council of Governments
"We have individual choices about local food, energy consumption and things we can do personally that can make an impact regionally. This is a reminder to me that I need to be taking more control in what I'm doing." — Ashlee Williams, coordinator, Hands On Central California, Merced
"The message is clear to me after this conference how important attitude is. Everyone who has been part of something successful has heard someone saying 'no.' They ignored (that) or had a vision and still accomplished something. We all have different levels of understanding and expertise, but attitude just seems real important." — Nathan Lovaas, executive director, Stanislaus Pride Center, Modesto
"Being transparent and letting people have input really makes such a difference and helps sway people's opinions when they don't see decisions as coming from a black box or unknown motivations." — Alana Hitchcock, California Department of Transportation
"It's the excitement and enthusiasm of feeling like you're within a generation of innovation and creativity. You know something big is about to happen, but you don't quite know what it's going to be. It's exciting to get re-energized listening to success stories." — Wendy Byrd, director of student development, Modesto Junior College
"Stay humble. Think about future generations." — Stephen Zamarripa, student, University of California at Merced