February 5, 2023
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A speed bump on the way to creating a chamber-led vitality group


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Henry Dubroff

The most concentrated effort to date to create a Santa Barbara County economic vitality organization has hit a roadblock.

And that roadblock appears to be the Board of Supervisors’ bitterly divided vote on the Santa Maria Energy project, where South County supervisors banded together to impose severe carbon emissions limits on an innovative onshore oil and gas development that had broad support in North County.

According to a recent letter from Santa Barbara Regional Chamber of Commerce President Ken Oplinger, a six-months-long effort to create an Economic Vitality Team led by the county’s seven chambers and funded with one-time seed capital from the county is underway.

“For me, a 200-employee firm landing in Buellton is every bit as important to the future of Santa Barbara as a business landing here within our city limits,” Oplinger wrote in a recent letter to the chamber’s members. “If a business expands in Carpinteria, there is no question that Santa Maria will benefit. This is how countywide economic development works in every other part of California, and it’s high time we put the same thing in place here in Santa Barbara County.”

In my view, creating a new business-oriented organization for Santa Barbara County was never going to be easy.  And the vote of the Board of Supervisors could turn out to be extremely short-sighted.
In the meantime, the vote over the Santa Maria Energy project may have stymied the efforts of Oplinger and others to create the Economic Vitality Team. But it shouldn’t derail it completely.

The region’s financial institutions, its construction companies, utilities and professional services organizations have a lot to gain from a countywide effort.

Most of the gains will take place in the Santa Maria and Lompoc valleys, which are destined to grow faster as the California economic recovery takes hold. Their chief source of new opportunity is going to be technology companies from Santa Barbara and Goleta that are outgrowing their digs and looking for places to expand.

Indeed, a strong showing by business types is the only thing that is going to add balance to the worst job-killing tendencies of the South County Board of Supervisors who are heavily beholden to environmental groups for campaign funding.

Some additional thoughts:

• Fourteen years ago, as the Pacific Coast Business Times was starting up, we were the new kid on the block when it came to promoting regional economic vitality. We had plenty of hardships to overcome, but our struggles made us stronger. Which is why Oplinger and his team of chamber presidents in the county should not give up on a mission they’ve come close to completing.

• The next move toward establishing an Economic Vitality Team might be for a group of area companies to step up and match some or all of the $150,000 that the county was going to put up in seed capital. That would send a signal to the Board of Supervisors that this is something that the business community is willing to fund with or without local government support.

• Fights over Santa Maria Energy and other projects are a sign that bridging the fundamental political divides between North and South Santa Barbara County will not be solved by creating a new entity. But having a forum where business groups can move forward on areas where there is agreement — revitalizing Old Town Goleta, building out Santa Maria Airpark and expanding infrastructure in North County, among other efforts — will be helpful in the long run.

• If it was going to be easy to create a Santa Barbara County economic development effort, it would have been done long ago. Other area organizations did not pop up overnight — in the case of Ventura County’s Economic Development Collaborative, it took the Northridge Earthquake to put in place a big chunk of a loan pool that this month got $1 million in additional funding from Rabobank.

Santa Barbara County’s chamber leaders have done an effective job of getting the idea of an Economic Vitality Team around in public. Now it’s up to the business community to move the ball forward.

• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.