Santa Barbara County is about to fill what some people have taken to calling the region’s doughnut hole when it comes to economic development efforts.
Thanks to a $150,000 grant in the recently approved county budget, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce will soon begin development of an Economic Vitality Team. What Chamber President Ken Oplinger envisions is a project that is a public-private partnership along the lines of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County or the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County.
“It took us a year to get this done,” Oplinger told me in a phone conversation, reminding me that it was a topic we spoke about when he moved to Santa Barbara a year ago. He said once the program is up and running, he expects county funding to dramatically be scaled back to perhaps 25 percent of total funding. “I don’t want the county to be a major funder,” he said.
Among the projects the Economic Vitality Team, or EVT, will tackle are a three-county effort to bring expanded broadband access to the region as well as advancing entrepreneur Mark Sylvester’s 805 Connect online networking effort. Oplinger said it will be important for the EVT to represent the entire county and to help with ongoing business developments in the Santa Maria Valley, where unemployment remains stubbornly high.
Another job will be to “begin a dialog” on creating an economic development component to the county’s master plan so that the business community has a forum to play a bigger role in decision-making at the county level.
By operating as an activity of the Santa Barbara chamber, the EVT won’t require creating a new organization, and Oplinger astutely observes that a new nonprofit is not exactly something that the county needs. Instead, the EVT will be overseen by a board with representation from seven chambers of commerce, private sector leaders and one representative from the County CEO’s office.
So far, the Santa Maria Valley Chamber, which operates a separate economic development program, hasn’t fully joined the effort, but Oplinger is holding a board seat open for the chamber, which does represent the county’s largest city.
“Because you are going to have private-sector business folks, this will help bridge the north-south divide,” Oplinger said. The chamber is in the process of hiring a director of economic development who will oversee operations of the EVT, he said, but he expects to be the point person.
Despite a political divide between the more conservative north and the often ultra-liberal south, Santa Barbara County has shown increased interest in business and development activities since the end of the recession. It has exported its emPower energy-efficiency upgrade program for residences to Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. And its planning commission recently approved the first utility-scale energy project in years, a solar farm in Cuyama.
The development of the Economic Vitality Team could serve as a way to allow businesses to speak up on policy issues in a forum where government leaders are able to respond constructively. That is something that Santa Barbara County has needed for a long time.
• Contact Henry Dubroff at [email protected]