Biz Buzz: Annual economic forecast cautiously optimistic

Cautious optimism may best describe the mood of the San Luis Obispo business community as it looks to the economy a year from now.

That was the loose consensus of an informal showing of hands at the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City Economic Forecast Tuesday morning.

A measure of the crowd’s guarded confidence was revealed when two-thirds of the 250 business leaders attending the event said they’d rung up good first quarter numbers.

On the other hand, the crowd was somewhat bearish on the prospects of the national economy showing robust growth in 2010-11.

The event offered insights from Bill Watkins, executive director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University, and various industry authorities who gave their views on topics ranging from Wall Street to Main Street.

On a local level, Watkins said the county’s coming challenge is how to deal with cuts to state jobs in light of California’s budget deficit. With 20 percent of the county’s workforce employed in government jobs — Cal Poly, Cuesta College, California Men’s Colony, Atascadero State Hospital, for example — “the county hasn’t seen the worst effects of state cuts yet,” he said. “It will be a while before it (the economy) picks up.”

Asked what state government could do, he said it needs to restructure the tax code, noting that “its reliance on sales tax and an extremely progressive income tax is killing us.” He also said the state needs to tackle more budget cuts and deal with pension issues.

A panel of local business leaders including Bill Statler, San Luis Obispo city finance director; Bob Wacker, financial adviser at R.E. Wacker and Associates; Hillary Trout, CPA and president of Softec; Hamish Marshall, real estate developer of WestPac Investment; and Watkins was asked if an overall economic recovery was really under way. Among their observations:

Thoughts on residential real estate in the coming year included:

Members of the panel mostly agreed that the future of the “green” movement will provide business and investment opportunities. Although opportunities may present themselves, Watkins doesn’t see an overall positive net value to society.

— Bill Morem

Savor the Central Coast event

Tickets go on sale today for Savor the Central Coast, a new high-profile food and wine event that is scheduled for Sept. 30 through Oct. 3.

The San Luis Obispo County Visitors and Conference Bureau has teamed with Sunset magazine to create the event. It will kick off at Thursday night Farmers Market in San Luis Obispo, with most events held at Santa Margarita Ranch, then end Sunday with an Avila Beach concert by popular singer Chris Isaak and fireworks.

Among the activities planned: culinary and harvest tours, seminars and culinary demonstrations, gourmet food carts and winemaker dinners. About 35 chefs will use produce from a two-acre Victory Garden at the ranch to create food to pair with local wines. About 150 Central Coast wineries will be featured.

The event is being patterned after one that Sunset magazine has held the past 12 years in Menlo Park.

Local organizers hope to attract 8,000 to 10,000 people.

The magazine selected San Luis Obispo County because it’s an “area of California that we always felt was closely aligned to Sunset values,’’ according to Shannon Thompson, vice president of marketing at Sunset. “It’s a little undiscovered region of the state that has so much to offer in terms of produce and wine.’’

Tickets for the event will range from $25 for a VIP reception at Farmers Market to $50 for a culinary or winery/harvest tour to $150 for a Saturday night winemaker dinner or $185 for the Sunset Western Wine Awards dinner.

Entrance to the main pavilion (to sample wines and see culinary demonstrations, for example) will be $75 to $85 for a one-day pass and $130 to $150 for a two-day pass; the lower prices will be available for a limited number of tickets for SLO county residents.

For more information, and to purchase tickets, go to

— Tribune staff