By Melissa James
It’s a little funny looking back — though it wasn’t so funny at the time — that REACH was set to debut its 10-year regional economic action plan on March 16, 2020, the very day COVID-19 shut down our schools and communities.
As a new economic action coalition serving the Central Coast, it was trial by fire. But the turbulence of the last 20 months has not shaken our vision of a Central Coast brimming with opportunities for current and future generations.
The need to grow target industries, turn our assets into economic engines and remove barriers to economic growth and mobility for our residents has only accelerated. In fact, REACH’s founding is rooted in the region’s need for more well-paying, quality jobs — a need that has only become more apparent over the course of the pandemic.
As our organization and our communities emerge from short-term rescue and move deeper into rebuilding and remaking our economy, here’s what we’ve learned.
Opportunity knocks, but we must answer. A handful of future-looking industries are poised to add thousands of well-paying jobs across the region. These are industries across a range of technology-related fields, including software, aerospace, renewable energy and ag-tech, which are drawing significant investment worldwide and already have a budding presence on the Central Coast.
The opportunity is on our doorstep, but we can’t sit back and expect it to materialize. We must unlock the door and usher it in. That’s the goal of a significant new effort in the coming year to create workgroups and programs to spur and sustain growth in these high-value industries and raise living standards for our workforce.
This cross-sector work, underwritten by $900,000 in investment from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and Bank of America, will also expand the REACH 2030 action plan into a formal, two-county comprehensive economic development strategy, commonly referred to as a CEDS. Having a CEDS in place not only unites the region around a common strategy and vision but also opens the door to new sources of federal, state and philanthropic funding for communities and organizations across the two counties.
Regional economic development is a team sport. Growing a flourishing economy takes many players on the field, from government and education to business and community organizations. These players serve different roles but must work together to succeed.
We’ve learned that we must build broad, coordinated and collaborative coalitions to achieve progress. That’s been our approach with all our initiatives to date: coalescing both rapid-response and forward-looking COVID recovery plans; shaping the future reuse of Diablo Canyon’s industrial parcel; laying the groundwork to realize the economic benefits of offshore wind; uniting the region’s cities and chambers of commerce for coordinated business attraction efforts; and growing a thriving space industry centered around Vandenberg Space Force Base.
That will be our approach in the upcoming industry/CEDS work, and it’s also the foundation of an ambitious new six-county coalition that came together last month to seize the enormous opportunity in the burgeoning space and aeronautics industry from Santa Cruz to Ventura counties.
By aligning our strengths and assets around common goals, the Central Coast can collectively realize more investment, job creation and inclusive economic mobility than any business, program or locality alone.
It’s a long game, but this is a defining moment. The commercial space industry won’t take off overnight, though momentum is building. It will take years before any vision for Diablo Canyon’s future becomes a reality, and possibly a decade before wind turbines begin turning off our shores. But the time to catalyze these opportunities is now.
We need to address the here and now, of course, but we also need to think and act for the long term. We need to start training people for the jobs of tomorrow today. We need to begin building the infrastructure our economy will need in 5 or 10 years, whether that’s a clean-energy port to support offshore wind jobs, a commercial space park at Vandenberg, more middle-class and entry-level housing, better broadband connections or cleaner, more efficient modes of mobility.
We have a historic opportunity to gain traction on these long-term challenges. We’re in a moment of unprecedented levels of public investment in economic recovery, with billions of dollars earmarked for small business support, infrastructure, broadband, workforce training and beyond.
REACH is coordinating intensely with our fellow players to ensure the Central Coast is competitive for those dollars and ready to put them to work refueling our economy, rebuilding our middle class and creating opportunity for all our residents to thrive.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath are altering how we live and work in ways that are still unfolding. Not only will history look back and weigh our response to these impacts, our ability to reach our economic potential will reflect the decisions and actions we take today.
Amid the noise and uncertainty of an increasingly competitive, globalized world, one thing has become very clear: We must be tenacious in working together to ensure our future is one we’re proud of.
• Melissa James is president and CEO of REACH, the Regional Economic Action Coalition, an economic development nonprofit based in San Luis Obispo.