More than 100 business leaders and the county of San Luis Obispo have produced what’s being called a first-ever economic strategy for creating more private-sector jobs on the Central Coast.
The 45-page game plan was produced by the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo and funded with $50,000 from the county and more than $75,500 from the private sector. The strategy lays out five fast-growing economic clusters that account for more than 40,000 jobs in the county.
The document is more than a vaguely worded vision. Business leaders from each cluster came up with three to five steps they believe will spur growth in the immediate future, and now that the report is out, meetings are under way to get the ball rolling on those steps.
The report is available on the EVC’s website at www.sloevc.org/strategy.php.
EVC President Mike Manchak said the report’s biggest achievement was bringing together more than 100 business leaders from different sectors to work with county Supervisors Adam Hill and Frank Mecham. Many of the businesses have customers outside of the county, or even the state or country.
“You bring people together who otherwise don’t think they have a stake in the economy, and they realize that they do,” Manchak said. “They have people here. They invest here. It’s a virtuous cycle of prosperity.”
The “clusters of opportunity” are building design and construction; health services; a software and information technology cluster; specialized manufacturing and a “Uniquely SLO County” group that includes everything from hotels and fine dining to wine grapes and broccoli.
Between 1995 and 2008, jobs in those clusters grew more than 59 percent, according to the study, while jobs outside them grew less than 1 percent.
One surprising finding of the study was that specialized manufacturing jobs, on a per capita basis, are four times more concentrated in San Luis Obispo County than throughout the state. Most of those employers have been insulated from the downturn and have posted growing sales.
“No one knows who’s here because we don’t raise our heads above ground, halfway because of fear of what the city will do and halfway because we’re all small-business guys who can’t be bothered with that pesky business community thing,” said Ty Safreno, CEO of Trust Automation.
Safreno said he realized he needed to get involved when he had trouble filling a firmware engineering job that needed an experienced candidate. He got only five resumes, “and they were all garbage,” he said. “One of my friends in a small business said they see engineers fleeing the area.”
The manufacturers in SLO County usually don’t compete with each other, so one of the first goals is to come together and work out an industry plan for attracting talent and showing candidates that there will be work for their spouses and that housing prices aren’t all that bad, considering homes can be had in the North County for less than $200,000.
Another issue for manufacturers is building permits. “We locate here because we like the quality of life. When we were looking at building our new facility, we were courted very heavily by other states,” said Kevin Meyer, president of Specialty Silicone Fabricators in Paso Robles. “The regulatory environment and some of the hoops we had to jump through in building our new facility were difficult and costly.”
Those issues are on the minds of builders, too. One goal of that cluster is to work with the county to come up with guidelines for “high quality developments” — in other words, a road map to developers about what the county is looking for, reducing uncertainty and inefficiency in the process of getting things built.
“Government is here to make this work,” said Dick Willhoit of Estrella Associates. “This whole effort is still in its infancy, but it really is starting to evolve with benefits for all.”
On the information technology and software side, strengthening ties with Cal Poly SLO and Cuesta College ranks high on the to-do list. So does getting the word out about one of the county’s most under-tapped technological assets: three trans-Pacific fiber-optic cables that come ashore in the county and provide a fast and direct pipeline to burgeoning Asian markets. That’s a higher concentration of “beachheads” than anywhere else in California.
“It’s a giant superhighway running by, but there are no on-ramps or off-ramps in San Luis,” said Tim Williams, CEO of data center firm Digital West. “We should have on- and off-ramps with all of them by the end of next year.”
The health services sector is growing and affects nearly all the others — when moving to a county outside California’s metropolitan centers, job candidates want to know there are good hospitals. Spreading the word about that is one goal, as is getting the county’s Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement status upgraded from rural to urban.
“It’s much less for what is deemed a rural area than for what’s deemed a metro area,” said Connie Framberger of Framberger Employee Benefits & Insurance Services.
The last cluster — “Uniquely SLO County” — is the fastest growing. It might seem a stretch to lump in broccoli and abalone farmers with vintners, but it’s what visitors flock from Los Angeles and San Francisco to see.
“Ag tourism is the No. 1 issue now in SLO County,” said Jim Brabeck of Farm Supply Company. “This is the first time the Board of Supervisors has ever reached out to the entire business community.”
The ag group wants to make it easier to hold events on ag land. It also wants to work with hoteliers and restaurateurs to promote the region.
A blueprint was forged at Savor the Central Coast, an event showcasing San Luis Obispo County ag, food and wine that drew thousands of visitors and a million-dollar-plus sales tax boost in one weekend.
“We have more in common than we have different,” said Rick Toyota of Niner Wine Estates.