July 22, 2009

Navy weapons unit produces a high-desert boomtown

The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake plans to add 1,000 civilian jobs by 2011, spurring construction projects in nearby Ridgecrest that are drawing workers from across the West.

By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

Ridgecrest, Calif. -- While the rest of California struggles with joblessness and budget woes, this high desert city is proof of the power of government spending. Uncle Sam has helped turn it into a modern-day boomtown.

A hospital, three hotels and a pizza restaurant are under construction on the main drag, where heavy equipment clears land once covered by sage and creosote bushes. Crooked "No Vacancy" signs are a familiar sight at local motels, whose parking lots are jammed most weeknights with contractors' oversized pickup trucks. Job recruitment billboards greet drivers heading toward Ridgecrest on California 14.

Once known as Crumville, this parched community of 28,000 about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles has become the land of opportunity. At least for those who don't mind isolation, searing heat and little entertainment beyond Wednesday night karaoke at the local bar.

"We don't have Disneyland, we don't have an opera house," Mayor Steven Morgan said. "But California is having economic troubles, and we have jobs."

The source of those help-wanted billboards -- and the engine of Ridgecrest's economy -- is the U.S. Department of Defense. The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, situated on the 1.1-million-acre testing range known to many here simply as China Lake, expects to add 1,000 civilian jobs by 2011, many of them good-paying engineering and computer science posts.

About 4,300 civilians are currently employed on the base. The weapons division is also spending $200 million on research centers, labs and other buildings where it will continue to develop armaments for the Navy and Marines.

In response, the local hospital and school district are pouring millions into renovations to prepare for growth. And developers are building houses and hotels to accommodate base visitors, hiring contractors from across the West.

The result is that Ridgecrest has been largely insulated from the state's downward economic spiral.

The city's unemployment rate of 8.4% in June was well below the state's 11.6% average and is much lower than the 14.7% rate in surrounding Kern County. Home values are also holding up better than in many other areas. The median in Ridgecrest in May was $165,000, down 8.3% from May 2008. That compares with a 42% plunge in Kern County over the same period.

There's no question that Ridgecrest has felt some fallout from the larger economic downturn. A Mervyn's closed when the department store chain went out of business, and a car dealership was lost when its owner moved it to Los Angeles.

But despite a $250,000 decline in sales tax revenue, Ridgecrest will still end the fiscal year with a $1-million cushion.

That relative security has made Ridgecrest an oasis of jobs -- although not everybody's happy about it.

When a government commission recommended in 2005 that naval defense research be consolidated at China Lake, employees at the Navy weapons station in balmy, seaside Point Mugu in Ventura County were aghast. A poll of workers there showed that about 80% of those slated for transfer said they'd rather quit than move to the desert.

Finding enough skilled people "is a challenge," said Doris Lance, a spokeswoman for the China Lake facility. She recently left the base to work in Arizona. Last month, the weapons division added two additional recruiting billboards on the 101 Freeway in Ventura County in addition to its giant "Now Hiring" signs on California 14.

Building contractors, too, have long had a tough time coaxing laborers to commute to the desert for work, said Mark Crisci, executive vice president of K Partners Hospitality Group, which completed a 93-room SpringHill Suites in Ridgecrest last year and is currently building a Hampton Inn across the street.

Not anymore. With the construction industry hammered by the housing bust, hard hats are now grudgingly making the drive.

Jim Buford, a pipe-fitter from Buena Park who is working on the new hospital, said that a couple of years ago he could ignore requests to work out of town. But threatening to quit won't gain him much leverage with his employer now, not when Ridgecrest is one of the only places to find work.

Laborers fill the town's motels during the week. The Motel 6 is nicknamed the construction frat house because the men stand outside their teal green doors at night drinking beer.

Stephen Edstrom, a road grading superintendent, flies every week from his home near Ogden, Utah, to Las Vegas, then drives about 240 miles to Ridgecrest. He misses his family, he said. But he needs the paycheck.

"You've got to do what you've got to do," he said, dipping his feet in the pool at the town's Econo Lodge. "This is the only job I could find."

Several big projects are underway. The Sierra Sands Unified School District is investing $25 million to modernize its schools. Ridgecrest Regional Hospital is spending $70 million to add units to its 80-bed facility by 2010.

Others are in the pipeline. The planning commission recently approved a 223-lot housing development. And the city is negotiating to bring in a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

In May, 109 homes were sold in Ridgecrest, more than triple the number sold in May 2008, according to Zillow.com.

"It's a good economy here in Ridgecrest," said Stan Dye, an entrepreneur who is building a pizza parlor on the town's main thoroughfare, China Lake Boulevard.

You can't swing a dead cat in Ridgecrest without hitting a Ph.D
Twentysomethings who wouldn't have given Ridgecrest a second glance in better times are finding it preferable to the unemployment line. Currently, about 75% of the young professionals offered jobs at China Lake accept them, said Betty Miller, head of the professional recruitment office at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. That's higher than in previous years.

Andrew Gray, a 28-year-old UC San Diego graduate, wasn't impressed by Ridgecrest when he first visited the base to interview for a job as a test manager. "The job looked cool, but the town didn't," he said.

He accepted the position and has adapted fairly well, though he visits L.A. every other weekend to attend business school part time. Because of the base's research center, his boss likes to say that you can't swing a dead cat in Ridgecrest without hitting a Ph.D.

Settling in Ridgecrest is a matter of perspective, said Billy D. Williams, a 30-year-old computer scientist who moved from Lompoc, Calif., last year.

He can walk into the local sports bar, Tommy T's, and know everybody, he said. He's gotten involved in a pool league in town, and he officiates at town baseball and football games.

It's a far cry from New York, where he lived for years, he said, but he's willing to make sacrifices to work to support the military mission.

"You have to take this place for what it's worth," he said. "If you compare the rest of the world to New York, you'll be disappointed."