Garner Holt Productions makes its living helping people escape to the land of make-believe.
There's nothing make-believe, however, about the economic impact the company is having on San Bernardino County, California.
On April 16, the world's largest designer and builder of animatronics for theme parks and other attractions around the globe announced the expansion and relocation of its corporate headquarters to the city of Redlands in San Bernardino County. The move doubles the manufacturer's footprint and makes room for expansion of company offerings.
Garner Holt founded the firm in his parents' garage in unincorporated San Bernardino County in 1977. Four decades later, he's moving the now-global operation into an existing 120,000-sq.-ft. industrial building in Redlands, a city known for its historic and elaborate architecture.
How the firm came to be based in Redlands is a story as much about San Bernardino County as it is about the supplier to Disney, Universal, Knott's Berry Farm, Mattel, Nike and others.
"We looked around. We did our due diligence," says Holt. "We looked across the Inland region. We looked at Las Vegas to see what was there. This is a big move for us. Hopefully, we don't have to move again."
Holt says he likes the county because it offers proximity to everything he wants. "It is such a diverse area," he says. "Being able to network with so many different types of people in the entertainment industry is huge. We are on a major freeway interchange. We can tap into talent across the region. We have a great workforce and great weather. We are very happy here."
Holt says the animatronics designers and builders in the area "are some of the best in the world at what they do. I have no reason to go anywhere else."
Moving to Redlands Corporate Center, just minutes from the firm's previous base, is like going home, says Holt. "My parents met at a dance in Redlands," he says. "My grandparents lived in Redlands. My family had roots in Redlands before World War I. It is a beautiful little town — an older Main Street type of town."
A Welcoming City and County
The town has a distinguished history of its own. Many of its structures date back to the late 1800s, including the iconic A.K. Smiley Public Library and the famed Morey Mansion. Kimberly Crest House & Gardens boasts a Victorian mansion and Renaissance-style gardens. Redlands Bowl, which hosts music concerts, opened in the 1920s.
"We have used some incentives, but that wasn't why we chose Redlands," says Holt. "We chose this city because Redlands welcomed us with open arms. They have been super helpful. We have received great support, and it could not have worked out any better for us."
The company currently employs about 65 workers but plans to double its workforce to around 130 upon full production at the new plant, says Holt.
Supplying and training that workforce is the job of Tony Myrell, chairman of the San Bernardino County Workforce Development Board. To help him do that, the county recently adopted a comprehensive Workforce Roadmap.
"The primary focus of the Workforce Roadmap is to train and retrain people into new job sectors and get people back into the workforce," says Myrell. "The roadmap shows us where to prioritize our training dollars for maximum benefit. Sustainable wages are the goal."
The Workforce Roadmap showed the county that its primary labor demand is coming from advanced manufacturing, health care, logistics and distribution. "The roadmap gives us the ability to work with our educational partners and businesses," Myrell says. "This makes sure that we are training the workers to what the employer actually needs. What we've found is that businesses change faster than the educational system does. Industry and technology are changing every day. This gives us the chance to adapt."
Along those lines, the county is rolling out several programs to enhance its worker training efforts: SlingShot, Career Pathways and Work-Based Learning. All are designed to better align education and worker training with industry needs.
SlingShot is about "deeper engagement with our business community," says Myrell. "We talk to educators and businesses to best understand where the workforce needs are and where skills gaps exist. Through SlingShot, we've reached out to our industry champions and businesses to discuss their challenges and whether they are getting the skilled employees they really need. Now that business is telling us what they want, we're going to the universities and community colleges and asking them to prepare a curriculum that will produce those candidates."
Exposing Kids to Lucrative Careers
The San Bernardino County Workforce Development Board Generation Go! initiative targets K-12 level youth. It is a countywide effort to provide career pathways in high school that lead to college and vocational training and employment. The intent is to prepare the county's workforce for future careers and ensure its youth are "workforce ready."
"We have an elementary school that is teaching kids how to do computer-aided design," Myrell says. "They are using 3D printers to make things. Kids are now doing this type of work in elementary school. We get them into Career Pathways at an early age, and we begin equipping them for careers that pay more than 4-year degrees do. Kids today don't have to go to college to get a good-paying job. They can make $40 an hour as a welder. We have dual enrolled our 11th- and 12th-graders into community college and they are working toward a certificate."
Work-Based Learning is an apprenticeship program that takes kids from high school and gives them practical work experience. "Employers will pay these kids for 120 hours of work experience," Myrell notes. "We expect a lot of employers in San Bernardino County to get involved in this program, because it works."
Reg Javier, deputy executive officer of workforce and economic development for the county, says that "preparing future workers with relevant, in-demand skills is a critical element of an ecosystem that is designed to address how we develop the best talent to attract business growth. The partnerships we've established, the youth of our population and the county's quality-of-life factors are all connected. Businesses see that and want to be part of it."
Holt says it's support like this that keeps him and his business re-investing in the county. "We like to inspire kids to make things like we do," he says. "It is very inspirational. That's why I serve on a lot of charitable boards. I believe in this community."
He adds that he loves "the wide range of talents that are available here. We can dip into the talent pool of the Los Angeles-Hollywood area to find sculptors, painters, costume artists, etc. Plus, due to the military presence, a lot of aerospace fabrication and machinists are here. Pretty much everyone we need to do our creative work and our finishing work is right here."
This Investment Profile was prepared under the auspices of San Bernardino County government. For more information, contact the county Economic Development Agency at 909-387-4700. On the web, go to www.sbcountyadvantage.com.
Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.