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California Farm Towns Mull Future in Malls, Not Broccoli

Watsonville grapples with economic choices as food factories close

THIS tiny town, in the heart of California's cauliflower and broccoli belt, is looking for a new cornucopia. It may not lie in fruits and vegetables.

For more than 40 years, Watsonville has relied on food processing to support much of its largely immigrant work force. But an exodus of factories in recent years is prompting some officials to consider shifting the town's focus from agriculture to high technology and other industries.

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It is a soul-searching going on in many rural communities up and down California's vast Central Valley as local and global forces bring change to the region.

The debate is especially poignant in this town, a center of union rights and rising Latino power. Next week the Norcal-Crosetti frozen-food plant closes its doors, idling 700 workers and ending an era. The plant is the site of a contentious strike in 1985-86, which galvanized local farm workers, established a political foundation for Latinos in Watsonville, and garnered nationwide attention.

"Watsonville can't house and provide jobs for all its young people,"says David Runsten, at the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The question is how best to use the land."

One frozen-food factory after another has relocated to Mexico over the last 10 years. There, broccoli and cauliflower can be packaged at a fraction of the US cost. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the economic crisis in Mexico only worsened the situation.

"The devaluation of the Mexican peso accelerated their export of frozen vegetables to the US," says Mr. Runsten. He says most frozen-vegetable factories have little future in Watsonville or anywhere else in California.

Locally, two opposing solutions for how to turn the economy around have emerged. In one, an unusual coalition of developers, real estate interests, and political progressives favors offering city incentives to attract high-tech industry and retail businesses.

William Segal, deputy director of a nonprofit housing development corporation, argues that a proposed new shopping mall will provide needed jobs for the area. The mall will include a Safeway supermarket and other stores.

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"Safeway is unionized and pays fairly well," Mr. Segal says. "Some of the other businesses such as Target or Staples pay less, but those jobs are still much better than being unemployed."

But another loose alliance of agribusiness, small-store owners, and some union and environmental leaders argues that such shopping malls will lead to the "suburbanization" of the historically agricultural area and drive small retailers out of business. Frank Bardacke, a local community activist, says Watsonville already made a big error by not attracting the fresh-cut lettuce business, which is now headquartered in nearby Salinas. Watsonville could become a center for organic farming, says Mr. Bardacke. "We could become the Ben and Jerry's of agriculture."

Councilman Oscar Rios says he would like more organic farming in the area as a long-term goal, but in the meantime the city needs more jobs. "We must reach out to the private sector," he says, "and provide incentives without giving the whole kitchen away."

MR. RIOS'S presence on the city council marks an important political transformation that occurred over the last decade in the Central Valley.

Here and throughout rural California, formerly all-white city governments now have significant Latino political representation. Three Latinos currently serve on Watsonville's city council and on a number of city commissions.

Rios's political activism dates to the 1985 strike against the Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods Inc., when he was a strike leader. After a federal court forced the city to hold district elections, he was elected city councilman and later became mayor.

If Watsonville is able to overcome its economic problems and maintain participation of Latinos in the political process, it could become a model for similar rural towns around the country.

"We have broken the good-old- boy network that used to run Watsonville," says Rios. "But we still have a long way to go."

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