What a difference a decade makes. San Luis Obispo County entered the recession with a relatively weak private sector driven by a single industry — real estate.
It also had talented and experienced fiscal hands at the helm of the city and county government. Fast forward 10 years and the change is 180 degrees.
The county’s economy is a lot more diverse thanks to a burgeoning wine industry and a booming tech sector. But for the first time in decades, it will be simultaneously breaking in new leadership at both the county and the city of San Luis Obispo.
That’s because County Administrative Officer Dan Buckshi departed earlier this summer to become city manager in Walnut Creek, a job that pays more and offers perhaps bigger challenges. City of SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig announced on Aug. 7 that she’ll be leaving this fall to take the No. 2 spot in Santa Monica, where she will be working for Rick Cole, the former longtime Ventura city manager.
Buckshi was the classic county insider who rose through the ranks to become CAO while Lichtig, who started her career in Santa Monica, arrived in SLO in 2007 as an outsider taking her first city manager assignment.
Both played a role in steering SLO County through a deep recession that changed the county’s trajectory. No longer is real estate the only game in town; technology, Silicon Valley transplants and the booming wine industry in north San Luis Obispo County have become game changers.
Under Lichtig, San Luis Obispo managed to retain a growth trajectory through recession and recovery to remain the largest city in the county.
New housing projects at the periphery of the city will provide a measure of workforce housing for the next few decades — solving a problem that has vexed other communities. A big factor for the city is the role of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which has fostered much closer relations with the entrepreneur community and also built its own housing for faculty and staff.
For the county, allowing some flexibility for wine-related activities has been a path to major tourism growth — with infrastructure for weddings, catered meetings and new hotels adding to the economy in the Edna Valley and north SLO County. “We have a whole industry built around events,” Supervisor John Peschong told me in a phone chat.
Matthew Fienup, head of California Lutheran University’s CERF economic forecast center, said SLO County has been a rare example of a California coastal county that is attracting more talent than it exports. SLO County consistently leads Santa Barbara and Ventura for the lowest unemployment rate and it has earned strong marks by greening its economy via massive solar projects.
The new county administrator and city manager will be coming in at the top, something that poses its own challenges.
The Paso Robles basin and much of the county have not solved the bitter fights that erupted over groundwater usage. “Water management will be one of our biggest challenges,” Peschong said. In addition, a relatively new team will have to tackle rules for recreational marijuana, a potential revenue stream that also brings with it vexing law enforcement headaches.
And having narrowly turned down a sales tax measure to fund road construction, the county will be dependent on state funding to improve highways, notably the increasingly clogged stretch of Highway 101 between SLO and the Santa Maria Valley.
For the city and south SLO County, the longer-term challenge will be the closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and the loss of 1,500 or more head-of-household jobs. But with nearly a decade to plan for the closing and promises of funding to replace lost aid for schools, the transition is getting an early start.
The politics of SLO County are tricky with the balance between growth and no-growth interests on a bit of a see-saw; lately the growth-oriented politics has had the upper hand.
“I have cherished my time serving the San Luis Obispo community,” Lichtig said in a statement. “Together we have solved the problems of today, envisioned a bright future and created life-long friendships.”
The next set of leaders for the city and county of San Luis Obispo will owe a lot to Buckshi and Lichtig. Hopefully, their lessons of strong fiscal leadership won’t be lost on the new crew.
• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]