Wood Colony: Déjà vu Reality Check for Local Economy

More Blight, Anyone?
More Blight, Anyone?

For over 30 years, various political groups and private citizens have worked for the preservation of farm land for future generations. With the current proposal by the City of Modesto to appropriate Wood Colony for an industrial park, now is a good time to look at the big picture of Stanislaus County’s economic development.

The Economic Goal of Urban Developers

The primary goal is to entirely destroy agriculture and replace it with urban development. Former Stanislaus County Supervisor Jeff Grover once told this writer that he would like to see urban development built out to the County line. He said that local agriculture has little value in food production because only “luxury crops” like almonds are grown here. This same refrain has been repeated countless times by real estate brokers, home builders, and politicians (only when speaking to certain groups).

To the urban development industry, the fact that local agriculture generates income of over $3 billion yearly in Stanislaus County doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that agriculture and related businesses employ more citizens than any other industry. According to urban developers, more money is to be made in subdividing property and building new buildings for the coming masses of people. They say that urban development will provide more high paying jobs and full employment.

The Local Economic Reality

Flying in the face of the developer creed are the facts that Modesto’s population increase has been minimal for the past 10 years, with numerous vacancies, abandoned houses, and empty stores, warehouses and manufacturing buildings scattered throughout the city and Stanislaus County.

Urban developers ignore the realities and limitations for development in the Great Valley, declaring that the people who want to save farm land are responsible for the decline of the community. They say that if only developers could build whatever they want wherever they want, there would be more than enough jobs and prosperity.

Even though land is available for development in hundreds of communities throughout the Great Valley, economic depression and unemployment are pervasive. Rather than develop on lesser soils, developers insist they need to take the productive farm land that actually contributes to local prosperity.

Developers presently want Wood Colony. If they can’t have Wood Colony, they may offer to “compromise” by taking farm land elsewhere. Urban developers will never be satisfied until all of the farm land is gone.

A Forgotten Agreement

Those who have participated in Modesto’s local politics for many years may remember when an agreement was reached for Modesto to develop west of Carpenter Road. The outside boundary of the general plan was to end at Morse Road on the west.  Once the line was reached, Modesto’s build out to the west would be complete.

Thirty years later, everyone who participated in the agreement is gone. No one remembers the agreement, so developers started negotiations over as if no agreement was ever made. Thus, city boundaries will be pushed out in perpetuity, with each “compromise” only a temporary agreement favoring urban developers.

Development in the Last 30 Years

If one looks at the urban development in each city of Stanislaus County just 30 years ago and compares it to what has been developed as of today, one would be shocked by the cumulative effect of all the “compromises” between farm land preservationists and urban developers.

One would notice the rampant sprawl of housing subdivisions. One would be surprised by the number of shopping centers and wonder how they all stay in business, especially considering the lack of progress in attracting high paying jobs to the area.

Where Will The Eventual Urban Boundaries Be Set?

If one asks a developer, the boundaries should be the Stanislaus County Line. If one asks a farm land preservationist, one will get responses ranging from wherever the present General Plan of each community says buildout should end to existing urban development.

Perhaps, the inability of the farm land preservationists to take a hard line stand has enabled urban developers to capture city councils in every community and use land as they please.

Non-Political Limits To Urban Development

Regardless of the arbitrary map lines or the purported economic necessity to add land for urban use, Stanislaus County has not yet awakened to the real limitations for urban development.

The current drought is one reality check. Modesto’s residential areas have been on water rationing for over 20 years. Outside watering has been allowed only 3 days per week. With Sacramento recently imposing a 1 day per week rule, Modesto will be tightening the rationing.

What business is going to relocate to a community with water rationing?  Who wants to move to a community without enough water?

The other dream that has been shattered by reality is that good jobs are coming.  They may never come.

For many years, urban developers have been saying that if only this or that occurs, Silicon Valley will start sending their high paying jobs out here.  Why?  Because Stanislaus County has a lower cost of living.  Houses are less expensive. The quality of life is…..

Unfortunately for the dreamers, high tech is moving in different directions. Some of it has relocated to downtown San Francisco (!). Despite higher costs of living, that city has many more amenities. Other high tech has moved out of state. Arizona and Texas have managed to capture companies that Stanislaus County dreamers thought would move here. Other states have a reasonable cost of living and more amenities than central valley towns like Modesto.  They aren’t ranked at the bottom of livability surveys.

Will Stanislaus County Ever Prosper?

As long as urban developers run local politics for their own financial benefit; as long as citizens interested in building a better community are kept from office; as long as the quality of life remains so low that the area gets poor livability ratings; as long as the crime rates remain so high relative to the rest of the country; as long as there is water rationing; as long as the streets are not cleaned; as long as the community does little about property eyesores; as long as the homeless and derelicts maintain such a high profile; as long as the citizens don’t trust their local government to properly spend tax dollars, then Stanislaus County will probably not achieve much prosperity.

Instead of growing food, Stanislaus County will grow urban blight.



Bruce Frohman
Bruce Frohman
Bruce Frohman served on the Modesto City Council from 1999-2003. He believes the best way to build a better community is to have an informed citizenry.
Comments should be no more than 350 words. Comments may be edited for correctness, clarity, and civility.


  1. Bruce Frohman, excellent piece. I could not agree any more. I have listened to these false promises from developers for years. Unfortunately, they are never held to these promises. Reminds me of the last Wood Colony meeting where Keith Schneider of Keystone Devevlopment spoke in favor of paving over Wood Colony. He pointed to Patterson’s business park as the great success. What few remember was when the West Patterson Business Park was being promoted, its supporters claimed they were going to bring Silicon Valley companiies into Patterson. They would be R&D type jobs that assist Silicon Valley operations. The Stanislaus County Economic Development Director at the time criticized the business parks along Highway 580 in Tracy for being too heavy in distribution centers and stated Patterson would be different. When the park opened those jobs never materialized and the developer made excuses. The West Patterson ended up being mostly distribution centers and it looks llike that is predominately coming int near future to Patterson.

  2. I also share your belief that developers have no interest in seeing any farmland preserved. I commend Denny Jackman on his efforts to save farmland in Stanislaus County and I believe he is well intentioned in trying to get all sides to come to an agreement. But I also beloeve he is being naive to think the development community is going to support meaningful any meaningful ag, preservation policy. When the Chamber of Commerce enthusiastically supported Denny Jackman’s plan, I am suspicious. I suspect they know they can get around this plan and continue on with sprawl. Maybe their plan is for residential sprawl on the poor quality soils and placement of warehouses on the fertile soil. That way, there is no real impediment to their land grab. The development community loves feel good ag mitigation policies that don’t work. It allows them to appear reasonable and willing to compromise but in the end it is business as usual and sprawl continues unabated.

  3. Very good and insightful article for those not as familiar with the area’s political history!

    Just read this article and thought it would add to the whole high paying jobs mantra!

    Skills Gap a Convenient Myth By Toni Gilpin

    Source: Labor Notes Saturday, January 25, 2014
    Haven’t seen too many “Help Wanted” signs lately? You haven’t been looking hard enough. At factories across the country, thousands of good jobs are going begging.

    If that doesn’t sound quite right to you, take it up with the National Association of Manufacturers. NAM and other industry groups insist at least 600,000 factory positions remain open.

    These vacancies are supposed to be the result of a “skills gap”—a shortage of workers with the right stuff for today’s high-tech factories. The gap looms large in high-level discussions of what ails the American economy—and it drives much public policy.

    “America wants a country that builds things,” says Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, industry’s leading skills gap spokesman (and board chair of the NAM), “but we have a problem. We don’t have the people we need.”

    Politicians of both parties echo this refrain. “Businesses cannot find workers with the right skills,” says Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, and Republican Senator Rob Portman agrees: “Let’s close the skills gap and get Americans working again.”

    President Obama, too, maintains that America’s manufacturers “cannot find enough workers with the proper skills.”

    Such bipartisan agreement is reflected in budget priorities. Retraining is a touchstone for the Obama White House, and since the president took office more than 18 billion federal dollars have gone to job training programs. Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently committed $8.5 million to training.

    Although unemployment continues high, the political focus has shifted away from creating new jobs. Instead it’s on retooling our education system to align with the skilled positions said to be already out there.

    Just one hitch: there’s little evidence a “skills gap” exists.


    A host of academic studies have debunked the notion—but you don’t need a Ph.D. to figure it out. You just need to recognize the law of supply and demand.

    “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” one economist noted recently. “If there’s a skills shortage, there has to be rises in wages [for skilled workers]. It’s basic economics.”

    Yet wages in manufacturing—even for skilled workers—are stagnant at best.

    Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School of Business, hears frequent complaints from manufacturers claiming they can’t find enough machinists. “Yet,” Cappelli notes, “the pay for those positions has dropped 20 percent in real terms over the past 20 years, while skill requirements for many of those jobs have indeed risen.”

    Studies from Illinois and Wisconsin on welding jobs—where employers often cite shortages of available workers—demonstrate that welders’ wages, as well, have decreased over the past decade, and there are thousands more unemployed welders looking for work than there are projected openings.

    When skilled slots do go unfilled, it’s because employers seek high-value workers at discount rates.

    “We’ve probably all seen the TV shows where new home buyers go out to look for a new house,” Cappelli says, “and they always are shocked to discover they cannot get what they wanted at the price they want to pay. The real estate agent never concludes the problem is a housing shortage. The buyers have to learn either to pay more or expect less. Is that happening with employers? It does not appear to be.”

    When pressed, one manufacturing CEO acknowledged that for him, the “skills gap” meant an inability to find enough highly qualified applicants, with no “union-type experience,” willing to start at $10 an hour.

    “That’s not a skills mismatch or even a labor shortage problem in any meaningful sense,” Marc Levine, professor of history and economic development at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, makes clear. “That’s an effort to secure cheap and docile labor.”

    “National data on wages, hours, the ‘job gap’ (the ratio of job seekers to available openings), and the skills requirements of projected job openings reveal no evidence of a skills mismatch in national labor markets,” Levine says.


    In fact, the real deficit we face is a jobs gap. There are still many more unemployed Americans, across every sector of our economy, than there are positions to put them in. “Unemployment is high,” one analyst notes, “not because workers lack the right education or skills, but because employers have not seen demand for their goods and services pick up enough to need to significantly ramp up hiring.

    “It is not the right workers we are lacking, it is work.”

    “Training doesn’t create jobs,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “Jobs create training. And people get that backwards all the time.”

    Economist Paul Krugman states bluntly that claims of a skills gap provide cover for those “powerful forces [that] are ideologically opposed to the whole idea of government action on a sufficient scale to jump-start the economy.”


    Cat CEO Oberhelman castigates the country’s “failing” schools for not turning out fully employable products—and faults Americans for not pursuing the rewarding careers he says are available in today’s factories.

    Stories like this one, from a Wisconsin professor, don’t make it into Oberhelman’s script:

    Take my former student, John. He did everything we ask young workers to do, earning two journeyman cards while working and attending Milwaukee Area Technical College full-time.

    John left Briggs when it began moving jobs to low-wage states and Mexico. But his new employer, Rockwell, began outsourcing to nonunion, low-wage plants even before it eliminated all hourly workers last year.

    So John started over again at Harley-Davidson. But, a year and a half ago, Harley laid John off.

    CEOs like Oberhelman create the hype about a skills gap and then use it to duck responsibility for the joblessness they are responsible for.

    The blame and the costs are offloaded onto workers, obliged to bankroll their own training, or onto taxpayers, as public schools and community colleges scramble to make their graduates more employable.


    It’s hypocritical, to put it mildly, for employers to bemoan the shortage of skilled labor while they lay off workers (including skilled ones) and pay less to those they retain. But their whining deflects attention from record profits and lavish executive compensation. .

    A recent example comes courtesy of Boeing. CEO Jim McNerney has said the U.S. faces an acute “competitive gap” brought on by “insufficient numbers of capable workers.”

    Nonetheless, Boeing recently threatened its highly skilled (and unionized) workforce in Everett, Washington, that the company would move its new 777X plane out of state if workers didn’t take concessions. They gave in.

    “Capable” workers were not Boeing’s goal. Cheap and compliant ones are what the company was after. Reflect for a moment about which sort of people you prefer to build the airplanes you travel in.

    So, while the fictional skills gap provides a distraction useful to CEOs and politicians, workers (and taxpayers) should keep focused on what matters most: our ever-rising level of income inequality.

    That’s the gap that needs minding.

    Toni Gilpin is an educator and labor historian, and co-author of On Strike for Respect: The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University, 1984-85.

  4. The worst of it all is that the developer groups rely upon the local citizen’s stupidity while pushing new asphalt about: unfortunately its an easy task. Jobs jobs jobs as justification for more sprawl although the facts show that quality of life degrades and the so-called ‘jobs’ never really materialize (reference county unemployment 1990-2014). Its just about money, and the more the merrier from their perspective leaving everyone else holding the bag. Sadly, way too many citizens are simply not intelligent enough to demand better planning but what else is new in the valley. A shame to be sure, and a real tragedy.

Comments are closed.