Dubroff: A few reasons to be optimistic about the region’s economic future
While thousands of small businesses are hanging on, waiting for an additional round of federal loans and extended benefits for laid-off workers, there are signals that 2021 will be a better year for the Central Coast.
In just one week, the announcements that Southwest Airlines will finally serve Santa Barbara, that a new $500 million fund for life sciences investment has been raised in Thousand Oaks, and that Direct Relief is one of the nation’s top three charities show where the region’s economy could be headed in a post-pandemic world.
Southwest’s Dec. 16 announcement was as vague as it could be. It did not specify routes, dates or fares, but simply stated that beginning in the second quarter of 2021 it will launch service to Santa Barbara and Fresno. I’m guessing the timing is somewhat vaccine dependent and that routes will vary—it is easy to imagine a plane originating in Oakland, flying to Santa Barbara and departing for Denver or Phoenix, or vice versa.
But Santa Barbara has had a hankering for Southwest since before the Great Recession; Frontier’s abrupt entry into the market appears to have delayed the entrance of Southwest but also proved the market was here.
For road warriors like many of the people I’ve met on Denver-Santa Barbara routes over the years, it means no more pre-dawn drives to Burbank to look for cheap fares and reliable service. It would not be surprising to see Santa Barbara become a minor hub for Southwest, drawing from the Central Coast, Bakersfield, Ventura County and even parts of L.A.
A weakness of the Central Coast when it comes to innovation culture has been the need to import venture capital. In life sciences, that need evaporated overnight when Westlake Village BioPartners, the venture capital firm set up by former Kleiner Perkins partner Beth Seidenberg, and former Amgen research chief Sean Harper, announced two new funds totaling $500 million, with much of the capital pre-committed to both follow-on deals and new investments. The new fund establishes BioPartners as the pre-eminent venture capital firm for greater Los Angeles.
And it gives the region the commanding heights of innovation in life sciences across financing and broad swaths of industry. Apeel Sciences in Goleta is at the leading edge of food preservation, Amgen remains a dominant player in biologics worldwide, and BioPartners has the capital and analytical capacity to create a new generation of pharmaceutical companies. In the post-pandemic world, we could see a significant shift in our innovation culture as life sciences, venture capital and quantum computing mix with our traditional areas of software, hybrid semiconductors and medical devices.
Speaking of thinking big, a report in Forbes in mid-December listed Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief, with $2 billion per year in private donations, as the nation’s third largest charity, behind United Way and Feeding America.
Tony Morain, Direct Relief’s vice president of communications, reports that both cash donations and donated medical supplies were up sharply, with Amgen and the Amgen Foundation continuing a successful partnership developed over the years.
Direct Relief’s worldwide success drives economists slightly crazy because it means that one organization accounts for more than 50% of all the nonprofit activity in Santa Barbara County. But the double-digit growth of Direct Relief vindicates the city of Santa Barbara’s decision to sell land near the airport to allow it to build a new headquarters and distribution center. And it will serve for years as a model for best practices in nonprofit governance, as a source of talent and as an institution that reinforces the global aspirations of many of our regional organizations.
Perilous times lie ahead for the region, the nation and the world. But this is not a bad way to end a most unusual year.
Note: Our Dec. 25 issue will be our annual Year in Review report and subscribers will receive our 2021 Book of Lists. This column will resume on Jan. 1, 2021. Happy Holidays and best wishes.
• Henry Dubroff is the editor and owner of the Business Times. Contact him at email@example.com.