Fourteen years ago, our editor drove to Santa Maria with Russ Havens, then general manager of the Business Times, to get our first look at the news and advertising potential of North Santa Barbara County.
Our first stop was the office of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, where CEO Bob Hatch was kind enough to spend some time with us. Hatch announced on March 11 that he will retire in June, after 20 years at the helm of the chamber.
Three things stand out about that initial meeting with him. First, Hatch was an affable guy who quickly sold the Business Times on the virtues of chamber membership. We wrote a check pretty much on the spot.
Second, he made it clear that we were welcome on one condition: That we shared his love of the boys in blue, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Third, he was proud of his service to his country in Vietnam.
Hatch has the sort of practical wisdom that is very rare in today’s charged political environment. He has been increasingly frustrated at the no-growth politics of the county that seemed to stymie every effort to promote jobs and opportunity for the Santa Maria Valley.
But he is wise enough to understand that the early movement of the early 2000s to break North Santa Barbara County off to form Mission County was not going to succeed. Among other things he understood, as Goleta is now learning, that the price of political freedom would come at a huge cost.
Over the years, Hatch figured out that Santa Maria would be best served with its own Economic Development Commission, operated under the chamber umbrella. The travel and tourism effort also resided within his offices. He has the best working knowledge of the business environment in North County of anybody around — but while he was a keen observer, he was very measured in his judgments. He approached economic development the way Don Drysdale approached pitching: Steady, focused, on-target and pretty much unflappable. “If you crowd the plate I will throw a high hard one at you,” Hatch said in a phone chat.
Hatch, 67, had the confidence to team up with the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce, which he headed before moving to Santa Maria, and to help promote economic opportunity at Vandenberg Air Force Base. He lobbied for North Santa Barbara County to have a place at the table in Santa Barbara’s on-again, off-again economic development discussions. Should the Business Times miss a major employer from the Santa Maria area in a research report, he was quick to pick up the phone and set us straight.
The city and the chamber hit a home run with Zodiac Aerospace, a Santa Maria employer whose work in building the next generation of airline interiors has created 1,250 jobs in the manufacturing sector and lifted the profile of the industrial park near the Santa Maria Airport.
Surviving the recession
The dark days of the recession took their toll on the Santa Maria Valley. Housing prices slumped, the city faced serious crime problems and its Broadway retail corridor was hard-hit.
Hatch’s common sense and welcoming smile are the kind of intangible assets that cannot easily be replaced. Thanks in large part to his effort, the area’s agribusiness sector is again booming, a rebound in tourism is afoot, and companies such as Zodiac and Hardy Diagnostics are growing.