Featured in the May 2018 issue. 

By: Steve Kiggins 

On the Leading Edge

It’s next door to Santa Clarita. Los Angeles is a simple freeway drive.

But when you’re here, well, you might as well be a world away.

The traffic, light. The cost of living, less. The air, fresh.

While the conveniences of the big city are mostly missing – and that’s how the locals like it, by the way – you can still find plenty to do. Stroll the streets in one of just 14 Cultural Districts across all of California. Go to the ballpark to root for the JetHawks or the Whiptails. Relax and sip local wines. Hit up a bowling alley, a movie theater or Diamond Jim’s Casino for a night out. There’s a state park in every direction.

You can make a living here, too. Aerospace and aviation have, for generations, propped up the economy – and, now, the fledgling cannabis industry, legal in the Golden State as of Jan. 1, is taking root in the expanse of the Mojave Desert.

Here’s the problem: “People just think it’s a dusty, dingy place,” Kimberly Maevers says.

A native of this land beyond the glitz and glamour that so many associate with this part of the country, Maevers knows better. And it’s her job to market these 3,000 square miles, tabbed Southern California’s Leading Edge by the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance (GAVEA), as a place of opportunity – particularly for business and industry seeking room to grow at a modest price.

PHOTO: An aerial view of the California aqueduct winding around Palmdale in the Antelope Valley. Getty Images

The driving force of GAVEA for the past 5 ½ years, Maevers isn’t shy about sharing the story of SoCal’s Leading Edge, meeting with executives, CEOS, site selectors and anybody else looking for a leg up in a fierce statewide marketplace. She busts myths, she brags about the affordability, she boasts of the built-in workforce.

What you need, she tells them, can be found in the Greater Antelope Valley. It’s simply a matter of searching the far-flung landscape.

“I’m not just representing one city that has a niche; I get to promote an entire region with these dramatically diverse capabilities,” Maevers says. “That’s truly one of the beauties of my job.”

‘We’re in the quality of life business’

Before Maevers can tout the benefits of any of the five cities that comprise the Leading Edge, she must address the most basic (and common) question of all: Where is the Leading Edge?

Connected primarily by state highways 14 and 58, yet close enough to the bustle of the population centers of nearby Los Angeles and Kern counties, the Leading Edge covers a triangular piece of the California high desert – from Ridgecrest, an out-of-the-way favorite of the television and filming industry that’s also home to the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, at its vertex, to the sister cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, where the some 400,000 residents enjoy urban places and open spaces, at its base.

In the middle, separated by less than 30 miles of worn asphalt, are the Leading Edge’s other two entries: Tehachapi, a quaint tourism hotspot with a uniquely local flair, and California City, which, despite its remote outpost, is positioning itself in the middle of the state’s newest billion-dollar industry.

“That’s why I have the map on the back of my business card,” Maevers says, stressing the importance of providing a visual to prospective business allies. “Sometimes it’s hard to get them to realize where it is and other times it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve driven through there …

“My map,” she adds, “has to be the centerpiece of everything.”

PHOTO: The water tower at Tehachapi Railroad Park is one of the city’s historic landmarks. Photo submitted by City of Tehachapi

While each city is distinctly different, with its own government, schools and other infrastructure, the Leading Edge’s five municipalities share three common threads that help them fit together as one larger community – albeit with really long roads.

  • Availability: There’s (lots of) available commercial real estate, approximately 6,500 acres across the region as of January, according to GAVEA.
  • Affordability: With commercial land priced as low as $6 per square foot, GAVEA says, and lower cost-of-living metrics across the board, the dollar goes further. Home prices, for example, are 60 percent lower in Lancaster than in Los Angeles, and the median price tag in Ridgecrest is, astonishingly, below $200,000.
  • Accessibility: There’s connectivity to the rest of Southern California – and beyond – whether by freeway, railway or air. There’s also access to what GAVEA projects to be about 70,000 employees who leave the Greater Antelope Valley to work in another zip code.

They also share a mindset.

“We’re in the quality of life business,” says Corey Costelloe, Tehachapi’s economic development director.

He chuckles, then recounts three meetings over a recent two-week period during which he heard the same feelings from business owners looking for change: “I’m done with L.A., or I’m done with Orange County.”

When that happens, GAVEA’s partner cities become especially attractive alternatives. Lancaster is the only two-time winner of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation’s “Most Business-Friendly City” award (2007, 2013); Palmdale won in 2015, a year before Santa Clarita claimed top honors.

The Leading Edge. It’s more than a catchy nickname.

“This moniker is reflected in our geography as well as our mindset and track record of innovation,” says Chenin Dow, the economic development manager in Lancaster. “Since well before area cities were incorporated, we have been on the ‘leading edge’ of aerospace and associated STEM innovation. As the home of companies ranging from Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin to Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, the Antelope Valley is continuing its rich history as a trailblazer.”

‘A game-changer for our city’

The smallest city along the Leading Edge just might be the next pioneer.

Envisioned some 60 years ago as a desert rival to Los Angeles, California City never took to its extravagant blueprint, instead developing slowly into just another faraway desert town of little consequence to the rest of the state.

Unless folks are looking for an escape, that is. Cal City is a regarded destination for off-roading, providing easy access to a seemingly-endless swath of sand. It’s a prime spot for photography junkies. There are unique opportunities for birding, wildflower viewing and golf, too.

And, a year ago, Cal City got a boost with the birth of the Whiptails, an independent baseball team in the May-through-July Pecos League. Tickets for home games at Balsitis Park, against the likes of the High Desert Yardbirds or the Monterey Amberjacks, are $6 – less than the price for a Dodger Dog at the ballpark in Los Angeles.

If the next grand vision for this expansive place in the Mojave Desert is a success, the Whiptails could be playing in front of a lot more fans in seasons to come: Cal City wants to be among the state’s frontrunners in the cultivation and production of cannabis.


PHOTO: A road sign on Pearblossom Highway (California Route 138) in the Greater Antelope Valley. Getty Images

The early returns have been far more promising than real estate developer Nat Mendelsohn’s 1960s-era dream for a desert metropolis.

“The cannabis industry is a game-changer for our city,” Mayor Jennifer Wood says. “As a city it may have aided in turning a financial corner. It has already begun to produce jobs. New [businesses] supporting [cannabis] and unrelated businesses have opened with more on the horizon.

“The voters approved the taxation for the various types of cannabis businesses and this revenue will provide breathing room, financially, for the city. We will be able to do more for our citizens,” she continues. “Each of these businesses will also provide some form of community benefit. Some include additional support for our public safety departments, programs for our school-aged children, enhancements at our parks, and more.”

Cal City’s cannabis journey began in May 2016, when Wood says the city was approached by a cultivator who wanted to “determine our level of interest in the medicinal cannabis industry.” Seeking to drive local job creation and reduce the city’s need for a supplemental parcel tax, Cal City officials proceeded to set up a series of community meetings and surveys to gather feedback and, then, with support of residents, developed an ordinance that cleared the way for cannabis-related operations.

In the short time since, Maevers credits the cannabis industry for taking a chunk out of what she described as the city’s “horrible” unemployment rate, which had been as high as 18 percent but now hovers between 6 and 8 percent. These new workers, from botanists to scientists to general laborers, aren’t working for pennies, either.

“The ordinance at California City is suggesting that if you’re going to work in that industry, the starting wage is twice California’s minimum wage,” Maevers says. “So, you’re gonna start in the cannabis industry, as a janitor, at 22 bucks an hour.”

She laughs. “Do you think they’re gonna get some talent out there?”

Already, Cal City has landed a heavyweight. Former boxing champion Mike Tyson, who earned the nickname of “The Baddest Man on the Planet” during his heyday, when he routinely pummeled opponents with a flurry of rights and lefts, broke ground in December on a 40-acre ranch that is planned as a destination for both growers and consumers.

In April, Tyson Ranch released its first-ever products, CooperGel, a pain relief remedy, and CooperGel ICE, which incorporates cannabidiol (100 percent pure hemp oil), also known as CBD, an ingredient scientifically shown in some studies to reduce chronic pain.

‘The beauty of the desert’

While the cannabis industry could be poised to take Cal City to a new financial high, the rest of the Greater Antelope Valley has been soaring on the wings of another industry since the advent of the powered flight.

“From Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier to building the nation’s latest bomber, the Antelope Valley has long enjoyed a front-row seat to aerospace history and innovation,” Dow says.

Even Lancaster’s minor league baseball team, the JetHawks, a Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, was named for the city’s ties to aerospace. They play home games, appropriately, at a stadium dubbed The Hangar.

The industry has helped build the region, too.

The home to five major facilities – Edwards Air Force Base, U.S. Air Force Plant 42, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, Mojave Air and Space Port and NAWS China Lake – the Greater Antelope Valley was a magnet for prime contractors, with industry giants Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Northrup Grumman all establishing major divisions. Hundreds of specialized subcontractors have since followed them into the high desert.

PHOTO: The BLVD in Lancaster is one of just 14 Cultural Districts in the state, as designated by the California Arts Council. Photo submitted by City of Lancaster

Today, aerospace and aviation, either directly or indirectly, employ about 50,000 people inside the Leading Edge, with total payroll exceeding $1 billion annually, according to GAVEA research. The full economic impact is nearly $3 billion each year, a total that includes about $600 million in contract spending, GAVEA reports.

And, Maevers says, the “Help Wanted” sign is in the window – particularly in Lancaster and Palmdale.

“Our aerospace and aviation employers are constantly seeking talent and constantly looking for workforce. They go through this very, very intense selection process and then they get down to making an offer and people are like, ‘No, I don’t want to go there,’” she says.

Maevers continues, “One of the biggest challenges we constantly hear about from people who are not from here is … ‘If I bring the wife out here, she’ll look around and say, ‘Hell, no.’ They don’t understand the desert lifestyle, the beauty of the desert. They don’t appreciate it. … We’re constantly having to educate people about the desert (and) everything there is to do. The clean air, the affordability, the great schools. Everything!”

That’s why she’s encouraging aerospace and aviation hiring managers to seek out-of-the-box ways to connect with some of the estimated 70,000 locals who leave every day to work in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Burbank or elsewhere across the region.

“(We’ve) already got the workforce and talent here – ready, willing and able to work – and they’re on the freeway every day going somewhere else,” Maevers says. “Let’s get ‘em off the freeway and get ‘em close to home!”

‘What’s not to like?’

The workforce challenges are considerably different in the Leading Edge’s smaller cities: Tehachapi, Ridgecrest and California City need newcomers to grow their respective workforces, yet don’t have the resources to get their message in front of larger audiences.

That’s where GAVEA, led by its president, Maevers, steps to the forefront.

Annually, GAVEA produces its Economic Round Table Report, a comprehensive book of numbers, statistics, facts and figures, maps and more that might serve as the region’s most effective recruiting tool.


PHOTO: Kimberly Maevers is president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance.

Everywhere she goes – near and far – Maevers has a copy. She’s not the only one.

“I always have one in my car,” says Doug Lueck, executive director of the Ridgecrest Area Film and Visitors Bureau and a resident of the city since 1990.

He adds, “We have people come in all the time and they ask, ‘Could you tell me how many people live here?’ and ‘What about the industry here?’ We use it to tell our story.”

Wood, the Cal City mayor, echoes Lueck.

“The Round Table Report is the go-to source for the key data [that] site selectors can reference to determine if a community is a good fit for their business or industry and able to fill their needs for expansion,” she says and adds, “If GAVEA didn’t exist, it would be next to impossible for us to do what they do from a marketing position.”

The Greater Antelope Valley might be remote. You might need to drive awhile to find a Target. There might not be an In-N-Out around the corner.

The tradeoff, contends Costelloe, the economic development director in Tehachapi, is a quality of life that might be unmatched in California.

“We’re selling quality of life,” he says. “The air is clean. Small town. It’s affordable to build. It’s affordable to live.”

Then, Costelloe asks the rhetorical question: “What’s not to like?”

At a glance

A capsule look at the five cities that form Southern California’s Leading Edge:

LANCASTER
2018 population: 201,799
2023 projected population: 213,876
Median age: 32.8
Average household income: $69,417
Did you know? The BLVD was anointed last year by the California Arts Council as one of the state’s inaugural 14 Cultural Districts, joining the likes of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and Balboa Park in San Diego.
What’s new? The 40,000-square-foot RAM of the West Truck Center, which is nearing completion on 10th Street West and Avenue K-8, will be the largest complex of its kind in the United States.
On the web: www.cityoflancasterca.org

PALMDALE
2018 population: 181,749
2023 projected population: 192,958
Median age: 32
Average household income: $77,202
Did you know? Palmdale was the first incorporated city (Aug. 24, 1962) in the Antelope Valley.
What’s new? In November 2017, Element by Westin opened its first California location, a 123-room “green” hotel at 39325 Trade Center Dr.
On the web: www.cityofpalmdale.org

TEHACHAPI
2018 population: 37,545
2023 projected population: 39,404
Median age: 39.05
Average household income: $86,510
Did you know? Tehachapi is an emerging wine country, with the five local wineries – highlighted by the award-winning Triassic Vineyards and Souza Family Vineyard – working now to garner labeling distinction for the Tehachapi Valley.
What’s new? Walmart is coming. After clearing multiple legal hurdles over most of the past decade, the retailing giant is expected to break ground this spring on a planned 119,000-square-foot supercenter that will yield about 200 new jobs and allow locals to keep their retail dollars in the city limits.
On the web: www.liveuptehachapi.com

RIDGECREST
2018 population: 33,723
2023 projected population: 34,427
Median age: 36.39
Average household income: $85,502
Did you know? Ridgecrest is within two hours of both the highest (Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet) and lowest (Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level) points in the contiguous United States.
What’s new? City officials and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe have agreed on the framework of a deal to build an entertainment center – including a casino, hotel and restaurant – near the main gate to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.
On the web: www.ridgecrest-ca.gov and www.racvb.com

CALIFORNIA CITY
2018 population: 15,098
2023 projected population: 16,026
Median age: 34.38
Average household income: $64,603
Did you know? At 325.2 square miles, California City is the state’s third-largest city by land area, trailing only Los Angeles (468.7) and San Diego (372.4).
What’s new? California City landed its own professional baseball team in 2017, the Whiptails, one of 12 clubs in the independent Pecos League.
On the web: www.californiacity-ca.gov

Source (population figures, median age, household income): Claritas via Environics Analytics