Unemployment in Watsonville hovers around 25 percent in the winter months and residents are reminded regularly of the , city budget issues and need for new jobs.
While economic woes seem to continually plague Watsonville, there actually is a booming community of small, innovative businesses that have chosen to make a home in the city because of its ready workforce, business-friendly attitude and inexpensive rent.
“We have this economy that’s much more complex than most people realized, and it’s growing," said Kurt Overmeyer, the economic development director for the city.
A year ago, on the north side of town, past the airport. The Norwegian company perhaps best-known for its fish oil supplements is not one you would expect to find in Watsonville, but since the new building opened, company's local workforce has grown from 125 to 145 people.
, which operates a manufacturing facility in the Strawberry Business Park, had under 100 employees and were manufacturing in San Jose when they outgrew their space. The company found Watsonville because mountain bikers told them they need to be in Santa Cruz County. With a loan from the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency, established themselves in Watsonville.
"Now they’re one of the largest companies in town," Overmeyer said. In 2010, Fox has about 400 employees, according to data published by the city.
Recently, the company grew so large, Fox relocated its administrative team to Scotts Valley. Overmeyer explained that there is so little industrial space in the city that is flexible and ready to move into that companies like Fox actually can't find the room they need here.
There is under 1 percent vacancy industrial buildings in Watsonville. Also, about 40 percent is functionally obsolete. That includes empty cooler space for agriculture industry, fridges and packing sheds that were never built to be production-based industrial space, according to Overmeyer.
The city's Redevelopment Agency has assisted with some of the space issues in the past, such as lending money so buildings can be refurbished to fit the needs of a company. As a result, Overmeyer and the city are left with fewer tools at their disposal when it comes to supporting business in Watsonville.
There are some solutions, Overmeyer said. There has progress toward realizing the , which would add state-of-the-art industrial space to the city. Advocating for changes at the state level to benefit local business is another avenue.
“We have this sort of community of entrepreneurs in that area," Overmeyer said. "As a city, it’s important to support those entremrepures… the next Steve Wozniak and could be out there working on their project."
Overmeyer and the city operate a website devoted to drawing business to Watsonville. Grow in Watsonville consolidates information about obtaining a business license, available properties in the city and demographics of the Pajaro Valley to assist potential businesses that may want to relocate in the area. Overmeyer said he gets hundreds of inquiries a year.
“To me, there’s no better way of keeping kids of away from gangs than the promise of a good job," Overmeyer said. “...The only way this stays a wonderful place is if people who live here can work here and they can grow here."
Of course, it's not all international companies with hundreds of employees. There are several small companies are a unique part of the Watsonville landscape: a telescope producer, a shoe designer, a recumbent bike company, a pizza oven maker among them.
“All of these things are going on right here in Watsonville and it’s really remarkable," Overmeyer said. “... We do have a cool business community."
In the coming days, Watsonville Patch will profile some of these unexpected Watsonvile businesses, starting with Tuedsay's piece about . Wednesday, we .