Since the early 2000s, people have been moving into the Santa Maria Valley in droves — a trend that slowed down a bit during the years surrounding the Great Recession — but one that is back on the rise, paralleling an increase in jobs and lower unemployment rates, according to new research from UCSB. The population growth has established a diverse community in the city, which has become more complex in recent years following the recession.
Santa Maria on the rise
Despite growth throughout the entire county, Santa Maria led the pack in growth rates last year ahead of every city except Goleta and Solvang.
From 2013-14, Santa Barbara County experienced the largest population growth it has seen in the past 10 years, with growth of at least 0.7 percent in almost every city in the county, according to new research from UCSB’s Economic Forecast Project.
“Both natural increases and a positive net migration accounted for the population growth in Santa Barbara County,” the project found.
With a timeline that parallels a turnaround after the years surrounding the recent recession, Santa Barbara County had a positive net migration (new people moving in) trend in 2013 and 2014, compared to a negative migration trend in the five years before that.
For Santa Maria specifically, growth has been steady every year starting around 2011. For comparison, from 2010-11 Santa Maria grew by less than 100 people, estimates the California Department of Finance. The next year, the city grew by just over 200 people, and every year since then has grown by more than 700 people each year.
When researchers at the North Santa Barbara County Economic Summit compared all the cities in the county over the past 10 years, Santa Maria led the pack with 15.2 percent growth. In comparison during the same period, Lompoc grew by just 3.1 percent and Santa Barbara grew by 0.9 percent.
“It just supports what we’re seeing here locally in Santa Maria as far as the overall trend of the economy and the health of our businesses,” said Dave Cross, Chamber of Commerce economic development director.
The growing workforce
After taking a hit during the economic downturn (around 2008-09), Santa Maria’s employment and unemployment rates are not quite back to prerecession levels but have started recovering in recent years.
Not only are more people moving in, but the group choosing North County over South County is diverse and includes a trend of younger, more educated people who also are likely to commute, according to UCSB’s findings.
“Santa Maria is a working-class community that mostly has been influenced by housing of fieldworkers and their families,” said Mark van de Kamp, a spokesperson and management analyst for the city. “Another influence are commuters who live here and commute toward San Luis Obispo County, or to the Santa Ynez Valley or Goleta/Santa Barbara. We have seen some significant growth by companies, including C&D Zodiac Aerospace, which has added hundreds of employees in recent years.”
While the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting category for local industries has continued to be the largest employment sector, the professional and business services category has surged in employment in recent years (by 24.8 percent in Santa Barbara County since 2010), mirroring a trend in the entire state of California. Such jobs include those linked to management of companies; professional, technical and scientific services; and administrative, support and remediation services.
The county saw an increase of 3,145 workers last year and nonfarm payrolls have grown at their fastest four-year growth rate since 2001, according to the economic forecast project’s findings.
While Santa Maria’s unemployment rate is still one of the highest in the county, it was down to 7.2 percent, according to a city report, a significant drop from the height of the recession years.
Cross said the Chamber of Commerce is still cautious, but in a recent survey, it found that 87 percent of businesses were either somewhat optimistic or very optimistic about their profits and success this year. Local businesses indicated optimism with the local economy, and 41 percent of those surveyed said they’re planning to do more hiring in the next 12 months.
UCSB researchers predict total employment and unemployment rates are expected to continue improving over the next year.
The diversity of Santa Maria
Though he’s a newcomer to the Santa Maria Valley, Mossholder said he can feel the energy of the growing city. He’s the new head pastor at Santa Maria Foursquare Church and said it’s something he and the church, which has English- and Spanish-speaking congregations, is focused on.
The church, located at 709 N. Curryer St., is active in the community, getting to know citizens in outreach like a family day celebration and Picnic in the Park program, which they will be helping the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County offer throughout the summer.
Joel Arreola, associate pastor at the church, said in working with community members in Santa Maria for about a decade, he’s definitely seen a change in recent years.
“I’ve seen people being hired again and being able to start their own businesses again and I’ve seen how peoples’ perception on being giving has been more toward believing and doing it, regardless of their situation,” Arreola said.
Mossholder said that the church congregation is growing along with the city, and he hopes to focus on growing the church’s Spanish-speaking congregation.
“There’s a lot of humanity and that means a lot of people with different needs, so how can we serve them?” Mossholder asked. “Really, with me coming in being new here, it’s how can we look at our context and neighborhood with fresh eyes and see the opportunities that are right here.”
CULTIVATE Pt. 1 Santa Maria Foursquare Church with Pastor Tim Mossholder