LANCASTER – There’s no question a few jaws dropped last week when Lancaster, in the northernmost reaches of sprawling Los Angeles County, was named the region’s “Most Business Friendly City.” Among its top competitors for the honor were Burbank, with its glitzy entertainment studios and trendy shopping; Palmdale, with its aerospace industry and new commercial airport; and Santa Clarita, which boasts a vibrant film industry and dynamic local economy. But Lancaster – planted on the sands of the Mojave Desert – has no high-profile monuments to attract commerce and only in recent years is shedding its image as neighboring Palmdale’s stepsister. What it does have is low-cost land, special zoning that allows for tax incentives and credits, and a determination to create jobs and lure business. In 2006, the 30-year-old city crafted “Creating Quality,” a 23-page plan to improve Lancaster’s job market, work force, commerce and community. That effort, along with a business-friendly attitude in City Hall and lots of affordable land, proved to be the combination for investors in industrial, retail and other business development, Kyser said. Add to that the state enterprise zone designation, which allows Lancaster to offer tax credits to companies that employ certain disadvantaged populations, and redevelopment zones, which keep the increased tax revenue generated by upgrades in the specific area. The results already are visible, said Vern Lawson, Lancaster’s director of economic development and redevelopment. Right now, developers have more than 4.2million square feet of industrial and commercial projects in the city planning pipeline. Most of that’s been approved with construction either under way or set to begin next year. “We just go all out for businesses,” Mayor Henry Hearns said. “A few years back, we’d heard of a company that was in Pacoima that made recreational vehicles. We heard about them wanting to expand. Heck, we got in the car – two or three of us – and a year or two later we got them up here.” SYGMA Network Inc., a restaurant supply company and subsidiary of the Fortune 500 company SYSCO, opened a 230,000-square-foot distribution center two years ago on 20 acres near Lancaster’s Fox Field municipal airport. The attraction was the location for a company that covers California, Arizona and Nevada, human-resources director Rita Williams said. “I think the initial reason they looked here was that it was central for our business,” Williams said. The company, she said, offers some of the highest blue-collar wages in the area. Two facets drive City Hall’s effort to stoke Lancaster’s economic engine – improving residents’ quality of life and increasing the local tax base, Lawson said. Lancaster had evolved over the decades into a bedroom community, which takes its toll on residents who travel long distances to jobs. In fact, 60,000 commuters leave the Antelope Valley daily for jobs in the San Fernando Valley and other parts of Los Angeles. So the city set out an multiprong strategy to basically take commuters off the road and put them to work locally. First come the tax breaks, the easy permit process in City Hall, the Mayor’s Roundtable where business and city leaders problem-solve and, yes, the relatively low-cost land. Then the community rolled social issues including high crime and mediocre schools into the equation. The city took the bold step of creating a scholarship program where it pays college costs for locals seeking education degrees if they agree to teach in Lancaster for three years after graduation, Lawson said. The city also is working with its high schools and colleges to train workers for the jobs it expects to generate. Lancaster also is battling a growing street-gang problem and is boasting some success with its public-private task force. At the suggestion of a consultant, the city is working on redeveloping its deteriorating downtown with more upscale business to replace the gang hangouts, Lawson said. For those efforts, the judges in the friendly business competition lauded Lancaster for retaining a “family-focused hometown spirit,” even as the population topped 143,000. Lawson said the competition was tough, with Long Beach and Cerritos among the five other cities vying for the business-friendly title. “We were up against some of the most business-friendly cities in the nation,” he said. “This city has had to take a very aggressive role. Where the private sector is traditionally the leader, that hasn’t been the case because we’re geologically isolated. They don’t come to us unless we convince them to come to us.” [email protected] 661-257-5251160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “News flash: Lancaster is in L.A. County and it’s a great place to do business,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., which tallied the business-friendly vote. “It’s important for us to realize that Lancaster and Palmdale both have a lot of land, and a lot of people think L.A. County’s run out of land to build. You add that to the tax incentives and tax credits Lancaster offers, the climate in City Hall and you find a place that’s attracting business.” It was during a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton that Lancaster learned it had won the Eddy Award, which is bestowed annually by the LAEDC, a nonprofit business support organization. “It was kind of fun,” Kyser said. “They were jumping up and down, they were so excited.” The key to Lancaster’s success lies in its very precise strategy to ignite a stagnant economy.