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Energy crisis to dot-com crash, state sees season of discontent

By Chelsea J. Carter Associated Press Writer

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- Residents contending with rising energy costs and rolling blackouts, tech firms struggling to survive the dot-com meltdown and farmers facing water shortages.

What's next?

Across the state, a season of discontent has settled in as many Californians see the once golden season -- summer -- tarnished by the spreading energy crisis and economic slowdown.

"People are digging in, figuring out how they are going to get by," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "I think people's view of the state is a little tarnished because of that."

Facing double-digit jumps in electric bills and the demise of the once-thriving dot-com sector, Californians have started changing their lifestyles -- conserving resources in a state known for its inviting geography and ideal weather.

"In one sense, it's a dose of reality," said 35-year-old Paul Stebner, owner of Guitar Remedy, a musical instrument repair shop in Santa Ana. "But it's definitely changing the way I think and the way I do business."

For example, Stebner is changing the way he drives, running all his errands on the same day to save gas instead of making three or four separate trips a week. He's also deciding whether to raise his repair rates to compensate for increased costs.

Matthew Ronau also has made changes.

"I use to go downtown a lot and see movies, go to the mall," the 30-year-old Ronau said as he pumped gas costing nearly $2 a gallon at a Sacramento Arco station.

"I use to go on weekend road trips, But I have to watch my money now. I'm staying home a lot. With high energy prices and high gas prices, what am I supposed to do?"

As the economic doldrums spread, business and tourism are being affected.

Carol Piasente, vice president of communications at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said she's concerned about the city's $6.5 billion tourism industry.

"People in the visitor industry say they do get calls from (people) out of state worrying that the elevators aren't going to work or that they're going to be sitting in the dark some place," Piasente said. "Our message is that California really needs to get its act together and resolve energy issues so we don't do further damage to California's economy."

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this month in Los Angeles, makers of video games and other digital devices fretted about the future of the tech industry that once fueled the hottest economy in the nation.

Don Wisniewski, president of Cybiko, said demand for his firm's handheld organizer could fall if people tighten their purse strings this summer.

"But California is tech-savvy and tech-hungry, so it kind of balances itself out," he said.

Farmers in the arid Central Valley were less hopeful, saying a general malaise in the commodities market coupled with increasing energy costs may drive some people out of business.

"It's decimating business. It's decimating farming," said farmer Keith Nilmeier of Fresno County, the heart of the state's $26 billion agriculture industry.

For Rene Puente, a 38-year-old maintenance worker in San Diego, the economic problems are becoming critical.

"Sometimes it's hard to find money for gasoline," he said. "If something unexpected happens, we don't know where the money will come from. It's becoming more difficult month to month."

For some residents, however, the challenges haven't tarnished the state's appeal.

For more than four generations, Jan Emerson's family has weathered the ups and downs of the California economy.

"It's not particularly fun thinking about our current predicament," said the spokeswoman for the California Healthcare Association. "But I still wouldn't live anywhere else."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 26, 2001

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