At an Economic Vitality Summit on June 8, key players in South Santa Barbara County’s business community edged closer to embracing the idea of an economic vitality organization. We wish they had just gone ahead and adopted a structure to get the economic vitality effort moving forward.
That’s because The Great Recession has created a unique opportunity for the South Coast to join Ventura, San Luis Obispo and North Santa Barbara counties and create an organization to support local businesses and entrepreneurs.
Kudos to Santa Barbara Region Chamber Chair Michael Holliday for organizing the summit and for making an impassioned pitch for a new organization to focus on private sector opportunities for the South Coast. But now is the time to move forward to creating a program. Once the economy improves just a bit, this opportunity will be lost — and the South Coast will once again kick back and lose an opportunity to bring up a new generation of entrepreneurs. Some further thoughts about what an economic vitality organization might do:
• Educate the community. Many members want to ignore the economy and think of business as inherently evil. This is a mistake — most businesses like the environmental focus of the South Coast and don’t want to destroy its beauty.
• Bring stakeholders together. In SLO County, the Economic Vitality Corp. has balanced representation from cities, the county and business and it operates in a very transparent way. That could be a model for the South Coast or for a Santa Barbara County group.
• Identify opportunities: In the early 1990s the South Coast did organize an economic community effort that identified regional opportunities. That work continues to be done in Ventura and SLO Counties but not in Santa Barbara. It can and should be restarted.
• Speed the regulatory path: For building and construction and starting a new company, time is money. But our local governments have gotten hooked on a culture that doesn’t take time into consideration in project approval. Businessses working with government can find ways to speed the process, reduce costs and bring environmentally compliant projects to market faster.
• Develop leadership. The region’s business community is incubating scores of young leaders who are going to steer the region in the next generation. An economic vitality organization would give them a chance to get ready and better connect them with their peers up and down the coast.
An economic vitality organization is important to develop now because the South Coast’s fortunes are now much more inextricably linked to its neighboring areas and because the region has fallen behind in providing support for its business community. Low unemployment on the South Coast masks a massive vacancy in commercial real estate, a distressed housing market and the region’s continued inability to provide opportunity for high school and college graduates who grow up on the South Coast.
It will likely take between $200,000 to $300,000 per year in funding to get an economic vitality effort off the ground. With so many well-heeled foundations in the area, including the Hutton Foundation and the Orfalea Foundation to name two, it should not be difficult to harvest this seed money largely from the private sector.
What’s also required is leadership. This editorial is a call to action to the South Coast business community. If an economic vitality effort is going to get started, the time to begin is now.