Santa Barbara County should explore an economic development effort to help existing businesses expand and recruit new companies to the area.
That was the near-unanimous view of more than 200 business leaders who packed the Reagan Room at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort on Nov. 8 for a South Coast regional economic development forum.
I served as moderator for the panel discussion and the question-and-answer period that followed. It was the first event of its kind in recent memory, and an example of the sort of regional cooperation that will be required if the South Coast is going to get its economy on track.
During the two-hour program, elected officials and administrators from Santa Barbara County as well as the cities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Goleta discussed their strategies for retaining or assisting businesses. They also took questions on topics ranging from the homeless and gangs to the potential for a new Target store on the South Coast.
"It’s about location, location, location," said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider in addressing the Target issue and the lack of a suitable site for a store. Goleta City Manager Dan Singer said any new Target would likely occupy an existing site, whether it’s a current retailer or a location such as the U.S. Postal Service operation in Goleta, where there have been a series of cutbacks.
The program was convened by the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce. There were also contributions from other area business organizations, which have been meeting for months to address the stagnant South Coast economy, said Chamber President Steve Cushman.
The program was the public debut for new Santa Barbara County CEO Chandra Wallar, who replaced Mike Brown on Nov. 1.
Wallar said she thought public-private partnerships could be effective in addressing critical issues such as the economy and economic development.
Business leaders also questioned why permitting for items such as signs is often slow, and why the potential positive impact of a business expansion isn’t considered in the planning process.
In a show of hands at the conclusion of the question and answer session, the business leaders said they supported the idea of a permanent economic development effort for the region.