WATSONVILLE—On April 7, businesses from across the region will come together for the first time in three years at the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture’s annual Business Expo and Job Fair.
This year’s theme is “Spring Fling,” celebrating the return of not only the spring season but the event itself after Covid-19 shut it down in 2020 and 2021. Chamber CEO Shaz Roth reported that businesses and organizations are “very excited” for the expo to return.
“We’ve got a great turnout,” Roth said. “We have businesses this year from across the tri-county area. We have some from Hollister, several from Santa Cruz, Felton, a number of North County threshold industries … along with, of course, a ton of Watsonville-based businesses. Everyone is eager for meeting in person, having that interaction. I think people appreciate getting together like this more now than they ever have.”
Roth says that her favorite part of the expo is getting to know local business owners better, as well seeing connections being made between them and their customers.
“Every year we’ve held it we get feedback from businesses saying ‘I got new business from your expo, I met new customers,’” Roth said. “It’s a great place for people looking for new businesses, for jobs, and businesses looking for great employees.”
Blackout Bingo, one of the event’s most popular activities, is also returning. Guests can pick up a card that gives them a layout of the event. Each business they visit will sign the card, and once complete guests can enter into a prize drawing. This year the Chamber is giving away four season passes to Roaring Camp Railroads.
“We try and market this event for the entire community,” Roth said. “We really want to emphasize that this is free and open for everyone to come out and enjoy.”
The pandemic has not been easy on local businesses. From extended closures, customer uncertainty about the virus and workforce shortages to ever-changing health mandates, many businesses have struggled to stay afloat.
“To be honest, it’s always hard to do business in South County,” said Clark Codiga, managing partner with Oaktree Property Company, which oversees the East Lake Shopping Center, East Fifth Plaza and other commercial properties around town. “In any climate, a good or bad economy … There’s always challenges, drawing people to Watsonville and getting them to shop locally. And definitely, the pandemic made it even harder. We worked with all our businesses and tenants to help make it through the past couple of years … Everyone had to give a little.”
The ongoing labor shortage continues to be tough on businesses, despite the economy improving.
“It’s been hard to get people to want to take on these jobs,” Codiga said. “I know a lot of businesses have struggled to maintain service due to lack of employees. But it is improving. Employment is trending upward. There are some really good jobs out there right now. It’s a great time for someone looking for work to get out there and take advantage.”
Added Roth: “The labor shortage does continue. The majority of businesses participating in the expo will be hiring, looking for new employees. But things are looking up. Businesses are beginning to increase their customer base once again. There is a lot going on … including the new development on Main Street. And everything happening at East Lake Village. The parking lot is always full.”
East Lake Village has seen a renaissance in recent years. Coffeeville, Sushi Q, Fruition Brewing, Ferrari Florist, Ace Hardware and others have moved in. Staff of Life Natural Foods, the Santa Cruz-based grocer, will be celebrating its first anniversary in the center on Wednesday.
“We couldn’t be more grateful for our partnership with Staff of Life,” Codiga said. “They are truly an independent, organically-grown business that hires local and supports local farmers. To go into a grocery store to buy lettuce or strawberries grown in the same town, that’s very unique. They’re really thriving. It’s obviously been a tough time for them to start and ‘take a chance’ on Watsonville. But they did. It’s a great store.”
Staff of Life will be hosting an anniversary party at the store Wednesday from 4-7pm. The event will include wine and beer tasting, beauty product and food samples, house-made bakery items, barbecue and more. Proceeds will support the Chamber.
“That store has brought a new excitement to that part of town,” Roth said. “The center is once again a destination.”
Codiga also highlighted Ace Hardware, which he dubbed a “pivotal change” for East Lake Village and Watsonville in general.
“They’re a fantastic locally-owned business,” he said. “The Rodrigues brothers provide great service with great employees. For them to continually give back to the community is really great. I think they’ve done a lot more for Watsonville than people realize.”
Roth and Codiga were both positive about the business scene in Watsonville and encouraged locals from all ends of the county to take advantage of what it has to offer.
“The business climate here is definitely improving,” Codiga said. “The energy, excitement of the community is increasing. We want to keep moving things forward.”
The Business Expo and Job Fair will be held April 7 from 4-7pm inside the J.J. Crosetti Hall at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, 2601 East Lake Ave., Watsonville. For information visit pajarovalleychamber.com.