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Watkins Leaving UCSB Economic Forecast Project

Longtime executive director and top aides are joining Cal Lutheran to launch a similar program.

California Lutheran University has hired UCSB economist Bill Watkins to develop a proposed new graduate program in economic analysis and forecasting at the Thousand Oaks school.
California Lutheran University has hired UCSB economist Bill Watkins to develop a proposed new graduate program in economic analysis and forecasting at the Thousand Oaks school. (California Lutheran University photo)

The UCSB Economic Forecast Project lost its top leadership Tuesday when executive director Bill Watkins and economics director Dan Hamilton announced they would be joining California Lutheran University’s School of Business. The pair will be helping CLU develop a proposed new graduate program in economic analysis and forecasting, as well as expanding the school’s regional forecast project.

Watkins, Hamilton and UCSB real-estate economist Kirk Lesh will be moving to CLU in the spring. Lesh already has been a senior lecturer at the Thousand Oaks campus and will become a full-time faculty member at the 3,500-student private school.

“It’s an interesting opportunity to do interesting work,” Watkins told the Ventura County Star on Tuesday. “The opportunity to create a graduate program is very appealing to us.”

Watkins and Hamilton, who each have doctorates in economics, have been in their positions with the UCSB program since 2000. Watkins previously served as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington. He is a longtime Ventura County resident, and references to his vacation home in Lone Pine are staples of his presentations.

The UCSB Economic Forecast Project was established in 1981 to provide information on economic, demographic and regional business trends in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties. Its primary research activity is the collection and verification of statistical data and other evidence about the changing business and economic environment in the region.

The organization currently is preparing for the Santa Barbara County Economic Outlook Seminar on April 23 at The Granada, which Watkins and his team will lead.

Craig Zimmerman, chairman of the forecast project’s Santa Barbara County board of directors, told Noozhawk the April 23 presentation promises to be pivotal for the business community.

“We know businesses are being impacted by the national economy,” said Zimmerman, president of The Towbes Group Inc. “But now is the time when the UCSB Economic Forecast can really add some value to show where the real dangers lie.

“My early view is that it’s going to be a pretty grim forecast, because right now it’s hard to see where there’s light, as they say. I’m not sure we’ve hit bottom, and more than ever before, Santa Barbara is feeling what is going on at the state level and even the national level. That’s not typical for us.

“So in addition to Bill and his crew, we have (Sacramento Bee political columnist) Dan Walters to talk about the state budget. We’ll also be taking a closer look at what’s going on at the federal level, with government bailouts and the stimulus packages. That’s a perspective that you might not hear everywhere.”

Zimmerman praised Watkins for his vision and skills at expanding the UCSB program to include state and national forecasts, but he noted the transition is an opportunity to re-evaluate its mission as UCSB and the board embark on a search process for his successor.

“Bill’s done a fantastic job and clearly he will be missed,” Zimmerman said. “But the forecast project has been around for many, many years, and the university and the board are both committed to keeping it as a vital economic component of our community. We want to ensure that we continue to provide our local businesses with the information they need to grow.”

Zimmerman declined an opportunity to compare the overall economic environments of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

“Bill gave no indication that the state of Santa Barbara County’s economy had anything to do with it,” he said, “but you have to wonder if what’s going on at the local level had some effect — our budget situation, the lengthy commute; these are not trivial considerations.

“But this is a fantastic opportunity for Bill to build a master’s program, and it’s in his neighborhood.”

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