Central Coast business leaders launch initiative to boost jobs, attract new employers

A new economic development initiative is underway to help grow and diversify the local economy, according to a group of business and civic leaders who have formed the new Hourglass Project.

The Hourglass Project — which will serve the Central Coast between Vandenberg Air Force Base and Camp Roberts — will be a collaborative, regional effort to create a unified voice and single brand.

Many of the details of the economic strategy still need to be worked out, but it will be formed under a nonprofit status, said Melissa James, the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce director of regional advocacy and a member of the plan’s Working Group, which is guiding the concept.

The concept was announced Monday in Shell Beach in front of 150 business and civic leaders, including supporters such as Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, MindBody CEO Rick Stollmeyer, and Dee Lacey, of Lacey Livestock.

More than 150 local leaders gathered Monday at The Cliffs in Shell Beach for the launch of the Hourglass Project, which will coordinate economic development from Vandenberg to Camp Roberts. David Middlecamp

The work will include marketing the region to attract investment, new business and job creation, fostering high-growth, high-wage sectors while supporting the expansion of existing business, according to the vision of the group of local leaders.

What does the name mean?

The Hourglass Project was named based on the concept that bold and collective action is needed to help invigorate the local economy, and time is ticking to close gaps.

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is slated to close in 2025, eliminating many high-paying jobs and creating a ripple of economic impact, and automation threatens 30 percent of jobs in the next five to 10 years, according to the group’s data.

The Hourglass Project — whose Working Group includes Clint Pearce of Madonna Enterprises, former SLO Chamber CEO Ermina Karim, and Chuck Davidson, CEO of Visit SLO Cal, among others — believes the local economy is saturated with lower-wage, lower-productivity jobs; faces a shrinking middle class; and is burdened with a cost of living 30 percent above the national average.

“We’ve identified three local gaps — silos of local city and community governments and organizations that often don’t work together, that many times we’re stuck admiring the problem instead of working together to solve it, and too many low-paying jobs,” James said.

Melissa James, director of economic initiatives and regional advocacy with the San Luis Obispo Chamber, spoke about wanting to have local economic opportunities for her children, during the launch of the Hourglass Project at The Cliffs in Shell Beach. David Middlecamp

The founding board will work to establish a staff and work out details around how the organization will function, James said.

But the solutions will include a regional economic development strategy; advocating at local, state and federal levels for various economic initiatives; and recruiting businesses to come to the region.

Hourglass will operate separately from the local Chambers of Commerce organizations but include participation of those groups in its efforts.

Support from local legislators

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham and Congressman Salud Carbajal also both attended and spoke at the event.

Cunningham touted the passage of bipartisan Senate Bill 1090 that provided funding to help mitigate the economic impact of Diablo Canyon’s closure as an example of how Democrats and Republicans can work together to benefit the local economy.

Cunningham said the Central Coast is primed to move into new job sectors, with Cal Poly and Cuesta and Hancock colleges helping to provide qualified workers, adding that career technical training can help fill high-paying skilled jobs as Baby Boomers retire.

Joirdan Cunningham, assemblyman quipped that the economic group also matched the boundaries of his district. The Hourglass Project will coordinate economic development from Vandenberg to Camp Roberts. Business, political and educational leaders met in Pismo Beach. David Middlecamp

“I want there to be five or six MindBodys in SLO County,” Cunningham said. “We have the best weather in the world here. ....There are a lot of people who would love to come back and raise a family here.”

Carbajal said the Central Coast is a prime location for wind and solar energy, and could become a “renewable energy hub.” Carbajal also cited White Fox, a local company that creates drone and counter-drones for defense purposes, as a thriving local technology company.

“How exciting it is to be at this point in time with a region of a half-million people to work together toward a new and better Central Coast,” Carbajal said.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune