SLO economic forum focuses on benefits of collaboration

Which of San Luis Obispo County’s most pressing economic problems could benefit from collaboration with larger statewide and regional initiatives?

More than 15 business and government leaders came together in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday at a regional forum of the California Economic Summit for a conversation to answer just that question.

Discussion revealed that, though necessary, training for high-demand health jobs, recruitment and retention of low-paid farmworkers, fixing a failing road system and cutting red tape are not things that SLO County can be expected to fund and achieve on its own.

Priorities set at the local summit — one of 16 statewide — will be further discussed at the statewide California Economic Summit, which will take place in Los Angeles in November.

“This is not about trying to do everything,” said moderator John Melville of Collaborative Economics Inc. “This is about identifying only shared priorities across regions.”

For example, would it make sense for SLO and Santa Barbara County wineries to compete with one another for the same immigrant labor force, or should they work together to create transportation links for farmworkers between counties?

Much of the discussion focused on workforce education and retention, but mainly for head-of-household jobs.

Dr. Steve Hansen of San Luis Obispo noted that with increased demand for health care from newly insured beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act, SLO County may not have enough physician assistants and nurses to alleviate the load on already scant primary care providers.

Jolie Ditmore, a local health professional, questioned whether Cuesta College is sufficiently funded by the state to educate the number of nurses that will be needed.

Discussion also focused on introducing young students to entrepreneurship, because data show that a significant and growing portion of California’s workforce is self-employed. That will become especially important in this county, where one spouse may be able to find a head-of-household job, while the other may have to invent his or her own income, panelists added.

Another main focus was streamlining and modernizing the regulations of the California Environmental Quality Act, so that environmental and business interests can both be protected without delaying important economic development necessary to create jobs.

And Ron DeCarli, of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, added that while SLO County is working with the demands of a smaller staff to streamline all its processes, state and federal agencies have even farther to go.

Kami Griffin, representing the county of San Luis Obispo, added that any economic development in SLO County is tied to the limits of the groundwater basin, over which control is “fractionalized” among cities and community service districts. To expand access to water would require wider state collaboration and assistance.

These ideas and more will be discussed at regional action groups, and shared priorities among regions will be brought up for discussion at the statewide summit.

Organizers at Wednesday’s regional summit collaborated with the Economic Vitality Corp. of SLO County.

The summit is sponsored by the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization California Forward and the Morgan Family Foundation’s California Stewardship Network, according to its website.