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Chamber has Santa Maria-style recipe for economic development

By   /   Friday, October 19th, 2012  /   Comments Off on Chamber has Santa Maria-style recipe for economic development

Politicians, business types and pundits have been searching for a model that’s cost-effective and politically viable.

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When it comes to economic development in South Santa Barbara County, politicians, business types and pundits like me have been scratching for a model that’s cost-effective and politically viable.

Such a model actually exists, which is why I sat down in Santa Maria on Oct. 15 for a chat with Bob Hatch and Dave Cross. Hatch is the longtime president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. Cross, a former small-business owner, directs the chamber’s Economic Development Commission.

The EDC, as it is called, is a partnership between the chamber and the city of Santa Maria and it receives slightly more than $100,000 a year in public funding, supplemented by private funds. That’s a fraction of the public-sector commitment to economic development in other counties, and Hatch is proud of the fact that it is “a lower-cost operation” than many of its peers.

So far, the EDC has focused its efforts on manufacturing, holding a series of briefings and site visits to local plants and training centers. The chamber has helped C&D Zodiac, an aircraft refurbisher, expand to 1,100 employees, and it recently helped clear a bureaucratic logjam that got the mammoth Windset Farms tomato growing operation off the ground. It also mounted a regionally focused marketing effort aimed at promoting the Santa Maria Valley.

A big project coming up fast is marketing of the Airpark, a large development site that’s part of the city’s Public Airport District. “The city, the airport and the EDC are partners,” said Hatch.
What makes the EDC model attractive to me is that it is easily replicable on the South Coast, where the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce is headed for new leadership in the post-Steve Cushman era.

The chamber, with a substantial volunteer commitment from Santa Barbara architect Michael Holliday and others, has created the South Coast Business Forum, an informal group that’s been advocating for existing businesses and entrepreneurs.

If my understanding of conversations with several key players is correct, Santa Barbara County may want to explore a small financial commitment, and the chambers of commerce in Goleta and Carpinteria might be eager to join the effort.

The strengths of the South Coast are not in the heavy manufacturing and large scale agribusinesses that are key to Santa Maria’s future.

Instead, the key is fostering niche technology companies, spinoffs from UC Santa Barbara and, as The Business Times reported recently, creative design shops. It’s easy to see the Santa Barbara Chamber’s Forum morphing into a more permanent structure that fosters vitality and that’s based on the inherent strengths of the Carpinteria-Goleta corridor.

Yes, you could even add one of my pet ideas, a regional Green Coast initiative on alternative energy and energy efficiency, to the mix.
Thinking regionally also is a strength of the Santa Maria EDC, which has  forged an alliance with the San Luis Obispo County Economic Vitality Corp. They are working to expand fiber-optic capacity in the region.

Indeed, without spending a ton of money on expensive studies or creating a new bureaucratic entity, a Santa Maria-style chamber-centric model could be an easy fix for the South Coast.

It would focus on the strengths of a small but dynamic portion of the Highway 101 corridor. And it could go a long way toward filling what many of us are beginning to call the South Coast “donut hole” when it comes to regional economic development.

• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]

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