Maybe we should drop the "y" and start identifying this part of the state as Kern counties, because it really is two distinct places: The Kern of the Central Valley and the Kern of the Mojave Desert.
Valley Kern is the earth: fruits and vegetables from the soil, oil from its deeper reserves. Desert Kern is the sky: aviation, space flight, and the power of the wind and sun. A mountain range divides them.
Efforts to unite the halves for the greater benefit of the whole have had some success, but it's been hit and miss. Then an earthquake rattled the desert on July 6 and the whole equation changed.
China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, a vital economic driver for all of Kern County, sustained $4.1 billion in damage. But funding for those repairs — roughly equivalent to the cost of a new aircraft carrier — is hardly a given. If all or most is not forthcoming, both Kern counties suffer.
If the funding does come, both benefit. How much and how widely distributed depend of how well we listen to people like Scott O’Neil.
"The earthquake creates huge opportunity but also presents serious risk," O'Neil, executive director of the Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Corp., told the Kern County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning. "On one hand a $4.1 billion investment to modernize; on the other hand (Kern County) risks China Lake losing some customers who may choose to shop elsewhere or by other government organizations trying to poach work."
O'Neil is probably better positioned to grasp this than anybody: He was a weapons development manager at China Lake and, for the last 10 years of his 44 years there, executive director and head of research and engineering.
If China Lake gets the funding it needs, O'Neil suggested, contractors like Boeing will keep signing contracts, revenues ($1.8 billion in new orders last year, and trending upward) will keep coming and its (primarily) Kern County workforce of 4,500 will keep cashing $600 million in annual payroll checks. China Lake will continue to contract out $1 billion per year, including $200 million in Kern County — on both sides of the Sierra Nevada — and its "credit card" small-purchase program will keep spending $28 million annually, including $3 million in Kern County.
If the funding for repairs doesn't come, though, those numbers drop, perhaps precipitously.
So O'Neil, a Ridgecrest resident, came to Bakersfield for help.
He asked the supervisors to send letters of support to a collection of defense and political decision makers, including the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Secretary of Defense, the state's two U.S. senators and Gov. Gavin Newsom, "urging them to make China Lake more whole again." He also asked them to direct the county's state lobbyist in Sacramento to network toward that end.
O'Neil also asked the supervisors to take action in an area that would have demanded attention even if that 7.1 quake had never rattled nerves and cracked foundations at China Lake two months ago.
He asked them to sign on to an effort, led primarily by a confederation of Desert Kern leaders, to strengthen economic ties between the two Kern counties. China Lake, again, is a potential gold mine that Valley Kern businesses are not exploiting.
"We've got our action items," First District Supervisor Mick Gleason said Tuesday afternoon. "We're going to activate our lobbyists and then we're going to create some type of exchange between the Navy and the business community, especially in Kern County — and not just the building industry. It's about software production, it's about education, it's about health care."
Second District Supervisor Zack Scrivner said local colleges in particular can play a role.
"Kids graduating from high school and looking at college need to know they have opportunities to work on spacecraft and aircraft like the F-35," he said. "There's probably awareness of that to some extent, but the more the better. STEM education is a huge part of that, and so are programs like Bakersfield College's Early College, which puts college right in the high school classroom."
O'Neil was part of an informal gathering of leaders from Ridgecrest and Bakersfield that met about a year ago for a get-to-know-you session. The theme: Might they become better trading partners, so to speak, and keep tax dollars, not to mention general prosperity, at home?
When the same group, larger this time, met again in August, the imperative had changed and quake-damage repair was at the fore. There was more urgency this time, and the value of cooperation more clear.
O'Neil clearly wants to ride that momentum.
He asked the supervisors to form a delegation to visit Ridgecrest and east Kern to discuss opportunities for better economic cooperation and establish actionable goals. One such meeting is already planned for this week.
It shouldn't have to take an earthquake for cross-county cooperation to gain real traction. But if it's a shaker that shakes things up in that regard, so be it.