Companies' Layoffs Hit Home in California Town
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen.
We often hear stories of the distress company towns suffer when they lose the big hometown business. But what if the place you live in is the home of two big businesses and they both wind up in trouble?
CHADWICK: That's what the city of Thousand Oaks, California is feeling right now. One major business there is mortgage giant Countrywide. It's actually based in nearby Calabasas. And then there's Amgen, one of the nation's biggest genetic technology firms. It's in Thousand Oaks. Both have announced layoffs within days of each other.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates went to Thousand Oaks to see how people there are coping. Here's her report.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Drive an hour north of Los Angeles, depending on the traffic, and you'll come to Thousand Oaks, or T.O., as its residents fondly nickname it. That hour puts you in a different world from L.A. Instead of urban traffic and crowds, Thousand Oaks' 125,000 residents enjoy a city with wide sunny streets, rolling hills studded with the oaks that are the city's namesake, and a lot of buildings with the names Amgen and Countrywide on them.
The Amgen Corporation is headquartered here and Countrywide is down the road in Calabasas. Both have announced layoffs - 500 people for Countrywide and about 2,500 for Amgen - that will affect their staffs nationwide. Since that news is so recent, most folks don't know exactly how many people in Thousand Oaks and the surrounding towns will be affected. The corporate presence of Amgen and Countrywide turned a modest planned city into one of the nation's most affluent. In the past 15 years, new residents, new development, and seriously heightened housing prices have become the norm. So the effects of a corporate slump go far beyond the corporation's sagging bottom line.
Serge Bonnet is the owner of Cafe Provencal. It's a small French restaurant in a neighborhood shopping center on Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Sitting on his patio as the luncheon service finishes up, Bonnet says he could feel a change in the air.
Mr. SERGE BONNET (Owner, Cafe Provencal): I've seen it already since the beginning of the year, because I believe that whatever happens today, it's like an iceberg; it started a few months ago and will continue a few months from now. Hopefully not that far and that long.
BATES: So Bonnet is getting fewer people at lunch to enjoy his Salade Nicoise and Steak Frites. Lunch at Cafe Provencal averages about $12. That could feel like a lot in an uncertain economy. And if regulars from places like Countrywide and Amgen stop coming in, the surrounding businesses suffer.
Mr. BONNET: When we say suffering, it might sound a little bit exaggerated, but for small business owners every loss is a big loss.
BATES: Bonnet's customer, Nina Ruland(ph), understands that worry.
Ms. NINA RULAND (Customer): What's going to happen to the people who go get their hair cut right across the street from Amgen when there's 2,500 less people working there? There's just this - going to be this enormous trickle down effect, everyone is afraid.
BATES: Ruland and her two young sons were just leaving after a grown-up lunch to commemorate the beginning of the new school year. To make the occasion more special, her husband Jerry(ph) took time off from his job at Amgen's financial department to join them. Patiently holding the purse his wife left behind, Jerry Ruland describes the office mood.
Mr. JERRY RULAND (Employee, Amgen): I know people anxious. People are quite anxious. I mean there's a lot of uncertainly right now. And until it gets resolved, people are going to be more conscious about how they spend their money.
BATES: A few miles away, the weekly farmers market is perched on top of a hill with a stunning vista of the Conejo Valley and the mountains beyond. Deeply tanned locals loaded down with late summer produce stroll the plaza or stop to watch the explosive fusillade of popping corn at the Kettle Korn tent.
Most people I talked to here feel it's too soon to measure the effect of the cuts at Countrywide and Amgen. Some aren't worried. Matt Zenheizer(ph) says he has friends who had their first jobs at Countrywide, but their futures aren't tied to the company's.
Mr. MATT ZENHEIZER: The majority of the friends that I've had that have actually worked over at Countrywide have only been there for a short term, just for the experience. They've all moved on to go somewhere else.
BATES: For the community left behind, city employee Rebecca Gilmore(ph) worries that life will change.
Ms. REBECCA GILSMORE (City Employee): Yeah. I can't imagine that losing that many people would not affect the general economy in the area. I think the new mall that's being upgraded, it'll probably affect all the stores, the economy.
BATES: The town's biggest mall, The Oaks, is being renovated to look like an Italian palazzo. The upgrade is being done to keep up with local tastes. But those tastes may begin to trend downward as the area's two largest employers struggle to deal with their own shifting realities.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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