A SMALL but key group of southern California business leaders has been comparing the region's unprecedented economic growth to dire predictions about its future. And they have begun to ask, "What's wrong with this picture?"
After nearly a decade of solid economic growth, the regional economy took a sharp downturn in the summer of 1990. According to the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy (CCSCE), all major economic indicators continued down over the next 18 months: jobs, income, retail spending, and construction.
Now, with a recession that has deepened local fears that California's prosperity has permanently fizzled, a rash of national media stories - Time, Fortune, New York Times, and others - have highlighted hosts of problems from growing taxes and environmental regulations to business flight and permanent defense layoffs.
But enough is enough, says "The Vision Council," a newly formed ad-hoc coalition of organizations dedicated to the long-term economic well-being of southern California. "We are rejecting the currently fashionable attitude of doom and gloom that we're hearing from both the East Coast as well as armchair Marxists at local universities," says Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at the Denver Center for the New West. The Center helped bring into the coalition diverse concerns such as the Japan Business Association o f Southern California, the Chinese Daily News, the Spanish-language daily "La Opinion," and about 60 business, media, school, and foundation leaders.
"It bothers us that the media and business community have actually grown to accept this decline and inculcate the delusion in discussion," Mr. Kotkin says.
Growing out of informal discussions in local hotels over several months, the network of business leaders convened its first conference last week. Keynote addresses by futurist Alvin Toffler, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, and Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation added to a full day of workshops designed to spark cross-cultural discussion and agenda setting.
One paper, by Steve Levy of the CCSCE, pointed out a series of misconceptions about business flight from the state and underlined several investigations by independent entities. One, by Fortune Magazine for instance, showed that of America's 100 fastest growing companies, 33 are headquartered in California. Arizona, Utah, Nevada, all currently competing for disgruntled California business, each had zero. Another report card prepared for the Corporation for Enterprise Development in Washington, D.C., gave
the state its top rankings in business vitality, development capacity, and state policy in 1991, each a grade higher than the previous year.
SEVERAL outside observers have called the new coalition more than wishful, local boosterism. "They have been frustrated by the lack of overarching vision in such a sprawling metro-polis that contains separate microeconomies that don't normally converse with one another," says Jack Kyser, chief economist, Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. "The focus is in getting the ethnic community involved in the equation. They are a key factor but have tended to remain tentative or keep to themselves."
Besides ethnic business leaders, participants included representatives from Price Waterhouse, Inc. Magazine, the Los Angeles Business Journal, American National Bank, Pepperdine University School of Business and Management, and Pacific Bell.
Speakers called recent rounds of ethnic hostility - both local and international unacceptable and counterproductive" to the emerg-ing global economy. They spoke of new models of intercultural networking, niche- and custom-ized-product manufacturing, and the role of projecting a better community image.
"We got a far more rounded picture of the strengths and weaknesses of southern California's economy," said Jose Collazo, president of a high-tech information services company.
Conference attendees did not minimize current difficulties, but emphasized developing coordinated agendas that concentrated on the region's considerable strengths: a growing ethnic community that no longer has a white majority; port position on the Pacific Rim; the coming benefits of a North American free-trade pact.