Bracketed north and south by Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, cities named after two heavenly ladies, Santa Barbara County is a natural site for Vandenberg Air Force Base, whose space and missile programs, rocket men and women have ruled Western skies since the late 1950s.
From the first test missile launch Dec. 16, 1958, Vandenberg has since put thousands of orbital and ballistic missiles aloft, and has collaborated with commercial space ventures as well. In response to continuing demand, aerospace and research and development firms have put down deep roots throughout the years and are major employers in the county.
Another key economic activity in the county is education, with area postsecondary schools including the University of California, Santa Barbara; Westmont College; Antioch University Santa Barbara; Santa Barbara City College; the Music Academy of the West; Pacifica Graduate Institute; and Fielding Graduate University.
In July 2018, the California Employment Development Department reported the county unemployment rate at 3.8 percent. This compares with an unadjusted unemployment rate of 4.4 percent for California and 4.1 percent for the nation during the same period.
Home prices in the county have a lot to do with where workers live and how far they must commute, with costs generally falling from south to north. With U.S. 101 and multiple state highways, many workers choose to live in smaller communities and commute to their jobs. The average travel time to work is 19 minutes according to the U.S. Census. Median household income in the county from 2012-16 was $66,161.
Rail and Transit Access
Santa Barbara is bisected by U.S. 101, an automotive transportation corridor that links the city to the rest of the Central Coast region, San Francisco to the north, and Los Angeles to the south. Santa Barbara Municipal Airport offers commercial air service. Surf Air flies four flights daily, two to San Carlos in the Silicon Valley, and two to Burbank, California. Amtrak offers rail service through the Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains at the train station on State Street. The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) provides local bus service across the city, and Greyhound bus stations are located downtown. Electric shuttles operated by MTD ferry tourists and shoppers up and down lower State Street and to the wharf. Santa Barbara has an extensive network of bike trails and other resources for cyclists, and the League of American Bicyclists recognizes Santa Barbara as a Silver-level city. Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority bus service offers connections south to Ventura and west to Goleta. The Clean Air Express bus offers connections to Lompoc and Santa Maria. Santa Barbara Airbus offers service to Los Angeles International Airport from Santa Barbara and Goleta.
The principal mountain ranges of the county are the Santa Ynez Mountains in the south, and the San Rafael Mountains and Sierra Madre Mountains in the interior and northeast. North of the mountains is the arid and sparsely populated Cuyama Valley, portions of which are in San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties. Oil production, ranching and agriculture dominate the land use in the privately owned parts of the Cuyama Valley. North of the Santa Ynez Mountains, agricultural activities and oil development have long provided jobs. The northern portion also contains Vandenberg Air Force Base, and thus military interests are prominent.
Oil production began in 1886 with drilling in Summerland. Enormous oil fields such as the Orcutt, Lompoc, Santa Maria Valley and Cat Canyon fields provided jobs and a steady supply of oil, gas and asphalt since the first oil discovery in the Solomon Hills in 1901. Protests have marked periodic resistance to the impact of oil drilling over the years.
The tourism industry, another major industry in the county, thrives on everything from the Spanish Colonial architecture to a major monarch butterfly winter sanctuary, from celebrity-watching to the cry, “Surf’s up!” Retirees bask in the sunny, mild climate and so do wine grapes, particularly the chardonnay and pinot noir varietals. Agriculture, tourism and wine have a significant footprint.
The county has long been a center for agriculture and ranching — President Ronald Reagan chose a ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains northwest of Santa Barbara for his ranching retreat, Rancho del Cielo. Agricultural production in the county had a gross value of almost $1.4 billion in 2016, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office says.
Some of the million-dollar crops included strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and other vegetables, wine grapes and avocados. Flowers put on a strong commercial showing as well with cut flowers, seeds and nursery plants grown for market in fields that blaze with summer color. Lompoc, on the mostly dry Santa Ynez River between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, bills itself as the City of Arts and Flowers, and Lompoc sunflowers are so famous that bouquets of them were presented to Olympic medalists in Atlanta at the 1996 Summer Games.
The movie industry has had ties to the county since Flying A Studios started filming in Santa Barbara on two city blocks during the silent era. Stars who have at one time or another bought homes in Santa Barbara include Jeff Bridges, Oprah Winfrey, John Cleese, Jane Fonda, Tom Cruise and Jennifer Aniston, to name a few. The county has long served as the location for films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean III” “Sideways,” “Hidalgo” and “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
The California Employment Development Department expects a 13.5 percent increase in industry employment from 2010 to 2020. The department predicts the county’s hottest growth areas will be in educational services, health care and social assistance; professional and business services; and leisure and hospitality.
Vandenberg Air Force Base
White-collar jobs, previously with an emphasis in aerospace but more recently in software and other high-tech pursuits are encouraged by proximity to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Vandenberg Air Force Base has traditionally had a large economic impact in the northern portion of the county and continues to be the site of frequent satellite launches. Vandenberg Air Force Base has an annual economic impact of $1.75 billion in the local area.