|By Roger Strukhoff||
|May 30, 2005 10:00 PM EDT||
There are a few key things to remember.
Meanwhile, over in Oakland, Berkeley, and the rest of the East Bay, chips grow on peoples' shoulders as the fastest-growing region of the Bay Area continues to get little respect, yet provides the last conceivably affordable housing in the region and has a true cultural and economic diversity not seen in its two domineering brethren.
Yet these three areas hold together well enough to form the
San Francisco Bay Area, a region cooled by the
This reporter has lived throughout the Bay Area off and on for the past 25 years. I love it, as do most people who live here. Great weather, great food, an underrated sports environment, and an area that continues to be among the most creative—and competitive—technology-driven regions in the world.
But yes, the Bay Area can seem insufferable. Self-satisfied and smug, on the bleeding edge of political correctness, and a place that has fueled individualistic narcissism since the days of the Gold Rush of 1849.
So maybe there aren’t many tears being shed for us these days. But the severity of the economic doldrums of the past five years cannot be overstated, at least when compared to previous Bay Area economic slumps. This was hardly a little dip, a little soft patch, a little recession. Eyes rolled when the 2000-2001 national recession was declared over in 2002, as our beloved technology industry was still in freefall that year.
The fall continued, and continued, like a nightmarish roller coaster with an undetermined, and perhaps unlimited drop after that nice initial climb. Official unemployment rates never told the story, as most out-of-work engineers and marketeers in the Bay Area simply became underemployed consultants, contractors, or eternal job seekers who refused to file for benefits.
In a state that encourages 100% interest-only housing loans, and with real-estate taxes tightly capped from the days of Proposition 13 in 1976, it still seems as if the equity train can be ridden forever. Living off of one’s home equity has become the latest lifestyle choice, like buying a hot tub in the 70s, getting that Bimmer in the 80s, or putting in a great wine cellar in the 90s.
Over the past five years, marketing budgets got zeroed out, engineering got outsourced and offshored, and business after business went out of business when caught in the vice of declining revenues and long-term lease agreements for office space they’d never use. I’ve seen documents relating to several major business failures, and all contained leases for as much as 500,000 square feet of office space (at premium prices) that had as much chance of being fulfilled as the promise of cheap nuclear power. Basements full of hundreds of computers, phones, desks, and chairs now worth less than the plastic contained in them became a common, iconic image.
The good news is that some of the worst commutes in this traffic-strangled region improved dramatically. One could now sail at virtually any speed past empty glass houses, chatting on one’s cellphone about…what? Certainly not business, because there wasn’t any.
And the doldrums persist. A report in the May 29 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined “Painful Recovery,” brings some statistics to bear on a problem that has simply not gone away.
The story, written by Tom Abate, shows average Class A Bay Area office rents continuing to drop, reaching a current $24.18 per square foot per month. This compares to close to $60 in early 2001, dropping quickly in 2002, but continuing to drift slowly downward to the present day. Vacancy rates have dipped slightly from a year ago, but still stand at almost 19%, compared to about 3% in 2000.
Payrolls in metropolitan
Downtown San Jose. Will This Be The New Detroit?
Trade shows can be a good arbiter of how things are going in the industry. Well, Comdex has died and is probably not going to be resurrected. Although not held in the Bay Area, about 40% of its attendees and exhibitors came from here in its glory days. Major events such as Sun’s JavaOne, held at the
Company-produced events such as the Intel Developer’s Forum, and annual customer events by Oracle and RSA, have strong enough attendance these days, although they don’t seem to be on the sort of dramatic growth curve one routinely saw at industry events for a 15-year period from 1985 to 2000.
And I saw recent enthusiasm at a major wireless event and a
more recent PalmSource developer’s conference, both in
But, specific parochial viewpoints aside, the entire region has in fact suffered from a decline that does not show signs of a true, imminent recovery. Abate’s story quoted an academic as referring to the recent regional downturn as “massive” and noting that 80% of the job losses will probably not return. Ever. Ever?
The story also profiled what may be the typical new growth company in the region, a company involved in GPS systems that is showing a 20% revenue growth per year but is hiring “in the single digit range…(and) whenever possible…at other locations outside the Bay Area.”
To be sure, there are still several very large companies out here, making profits. Cisco, HP, Oracle, Intel, and even Sun come to mind. Yahoo and Google and eBay are all newcomers to the superstar scene.
Hundreds of smaller companies continue to churn out great products and great ideas. Intense, passionate, even fanatic communities continue to thrive, whether dedicated to Java, open source, search, or plain old silicon horsepower enhancement.
But the reality is that that
Web developers make half of what they made five years ago. Stock options went under more water than a coral reef and ESOPs disappeared like the coin in that creepy magician’s hand. The irony is that most people are working harder than ever to make less and less. There’s no such thing as a debate over restricting workweek hours or guaranteeing jobs for technology employees. Here, your career lives or dies solely on your abilities and wits. There is little room for complainers, order takers, or cruise-control work ethics. Here, as they say, “it’s about” opportunity, insane creativity, and new paradigms.
Surely something will come along soon to refire the area’s creative and engineering cauldrons, something for which the Bay Area’s unique combination of talent and climate is better suited than anywhere else on the planet. There are simply too many experienced, manically driven people here to keep the good times from returning, full force. Right?
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