In the southeast corner of California, in an area near the Mexico border, a project known as the Lithium Valley has been quietly moving forward over the past few years. The project holds promise of building a new economic base for this largely agricultural county, Imperial County, one of the poorest of the 58 counties in the state. Whether the project will be achieved, though, is still in the balance, with the upcoming year a pivotal one.
The California economic development landscape over the past four decades is filled with major economic development plans that failed to produce results: plans in the 1980s to rebuild California’s heavy manufacturing base, in the 1990s to rebuild the decimated timber economies of the state’s North Coast, in the early 2000s to retrain laid off oil and gas workers. In the past decade, state planners heralded jobs in alternative energy and then in cannabis, but neither industry has produced near the anticipated number of jobs.
Lithium Valley, however, has a different feel from these other projects. It is not only that the project has as its foundation a highly valued natural resource, lithium, and advanced extraction techniques—though these are primary factors. The project is being driven by local appointed and elected officials who are from Imperial County, know the territory, and are grounded, with none of the sense of entitlement and the ideologies that now prevail in the state’s major cities. They recognize the project challenges: financing, environmental, and its own jobs perplex: how to tie the jobs generated to the County’s current residents and struggling small businesses, and how to leverage Lithium Valley to build a diversified private sector economy.