Normally, the closure of a business operation or division is not grounds for a celebration, but in this case I am going to make an exception. At midnight on December 31, I not only drank a toast to the new year, but also to finally getting all my business operations out of Ventura County, California.
Never have I operated in a more difficult environment. Ventura County combines a difficult government environment with a difficult employee base with a difficult customer base.
- It took years in Ventura County to make even the simplest modifications to the campground we ran. For example, it took 7 separate permits from the County (each requiring a substantial payment) just to remove a wooden deck that the County inspector had condemned. In order to allow us to temporarily park a small concession trailer in the parking lot, we had to (among other steps) take a soil sample of the dirt under the asphalt of the parking lot. It took 3 years to permit a simple 500 gallon fuel tank with CARB and the County equivilent. The entire campground desperately needed a major renovation but the smallest change would have triggered millions of dollars of new facility requirements from the County that we simply could not afford.
- In most states we pay a percent or two of wages for unemployment insurance. In California we pay almost 7%. Our summer seasonal employees often take the winter off, working only in the summer, but claim unemployment insurance anyway. They are supposed to be looking for work, but they seldom are and California refuses to police the matter. Several couples spend the whole winter in Mexico, collecting unemployment all the while. So I have to pay a fortune to support these folks' winter vacations.
- California is raising minimum wages over the next 2 years by $2. Many of our prices are frozen by our landlord based on past agreements they have entered into, so we had no way to offset these extra costs. At some point, Obamacare will stop waiving its employer mandate and we will owe $2000-$3000 extra additional for each employee. There was simply no way to support these costs without expanding to increase our size, which is impossible (see above) due to County regulations.
- A local attorney held regular evening meetings with my employees to brainstorm new ways the could sue our company under arcane California law. For example, we went through three iterations of rules and procedures trying to comply with California break law and changing "safe" harbors supposedly provided by California court decisions. We only successfully stopped the suits by implementing a fingerprint timekeeping system and making it an automatic termination offense to work through lunch. This operation has about 25 employees vs. 400 for the rest of the company. 100% of our lawsuits from employees over our entire 10-year history came from this one site. At first we thought it was a manager issue, so we kept sending in our best managers from around the country to run the place, but the suits just continued.
- Ask anyone in the recreation business where their most difficult customers are, and they likely will name the Los Angeles area. It is impossible to generalize of course, because there are great customers from any location, but LA seems to have more than its fair share of difficult, unruly, entitled customers. LA residents are, for example, by far the worst litterers in the country, at least from our experience. Draw a map of California with concentric circles around LA and the further out one gets, the lower the litter clean-up costs we have. But what really killed it for me in Ventura County was the crazy irresponsible drinking and behavior. Ventura County is the only location out of nearly 200 in the country where we had to hire full-time law enforcement help to provide security. At most locations, we would get 1 arrest every month or two (at most). In Ventura we could get 5-10 arrests a day. In the end, I found myself running a location where I would never take my own family.
And so I got out. Hallelujah.
PS- People frequently talk about taxes in California being what makes the state "anti-business." That may be, but I guess I never made enough money to have the taxes really bite. But taxes are only a small part of the equation.
Update: Wow, reading this again, I left out so much! An employee once sued us at this location for harassment and intimidation by her manager -- when the manager was her sister! It cost me over $20,000 in legal expenses to get the case dismissed. I had an older couple file a state complaint for age discrimination when they were terminated -- despite the fact that our entire business model is to hire retired people and the vast majority of our employees are 70 and older. And how could I have forgotten the process of getting a liquor license? I suppose I left it out because while tedious (my wife and I had to fly to California to get fingerprinted, for example), it is not really worse than in other places -- liquor license processes are universally bad, a feature and not a bug for the established businesses one is trying to compete with. We gave the license up pretty quickly, when we saw how crazy and irresponsible much of the customer base was. Trying to make the place safer and more family friendly, we banned alcohol from the lake area, and faced a series of lawsuit threats over that.