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SLO County economy gets new attention

Imagine a county where so many businesses want to open or expand that they fight for office space, high-paying jobs are plentiful and government officials have more than enough tax revenue to pay for essential services.

With the economy still struggling to regain its footing, that scenario may seem like fiction. But a group of local business and government leaders who helped craft an economic strategy for the region hope someday that can be a reality for San Luis Obispo County.

To be sure, they acknowledge, there will be challenges to overcome.

The county does not have enough private-sector, head-of-household jobs, is one of the least affordable in terms of housing costs and lacks a “critical mass of companies,” said Mike Manchak, president and CEO of the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County, a regional, nonprofit economic development organization that is managing the development of the strategy and its implementation. Collaborative Economics Inc., a San Mateo-based firm hired by the EVC, created the strategy.

It’s the first such local project to obtain private and public funds, and receive the cooperation of government officials and business leaders to develop an economic strategy.

“For local companies to grow their businesses and create jobs, they require talent from inside and outside of the county,” Manchak said. “Prospective employees from outside the county are often reluctant to move here — especially those with families — due to the lack of alternate employment opportunities if the first job does not work out.”

Endorsed by the county Board of Supervisors in June, the economic strategy is designed to be a guide for how to bring job growth here and create a future filled with economic prosperity.

More than 120 business leaders countywide helped to develop the strategy and have been involved in generating ideas in six industry cluster groups:

Building, design and construction.

Health services.

Knowledge and innovation services.

Specialized manufacturing.

Uniquely SLO County (promoting the county’s food, wine and recreational experiences).

Green energy.

These clusters have been the source for nearly 90 percent of local job growth since 1995, according to an assessment taken as part of the strategy’s development.

While the strategy is not a response to the recent recession, Manchak believes the county’s economy, like those in other communities nationwide, “is at risk of degrading conditions.”

“Albeit our county has historically enjoyed one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the state, but this fact does not tell a complete picture of the health of our community,” he said.

San Luis Obispo County “has seen and may continue to see its share of company closures or departures, and we are not out of the woods yet,’’ Manchak added. The county must foster a competitive environment that spurs startups, helps existing companies grow and recruits others or it will risk losing local companies to regions where it’s easier to do business, he said.

County Supervisor Frank Mecham, a co-chair on the project, said the strategy will put the county in a good position when the economy recovers.

“The effort was to engage business, education and government, with the lead being taken by business,” Mecham said. “We have the talent, experience and willingness to make the necessary changes to expedite this turn, and we are already seeing some short-term success.”

Creating a business-friendly culture

For Supervisor Adam Hill, a co-chair on the project with Mecham, it begins with creating a culture that is open to local business development so that companies with high-paying professional jobs will want to be here.

There are creative ways that county staff can help businesses navigate the system or comply with a county regulation, he said. Often, businesses need to move much faster than county officials are used to, Hill noted.

“We should not let small things get in the way of the big picture,” he said. “We need to do what we can to help our companies stay here.”

Toward that end, Hill was recently involved in discussions with a local developer and others representing the interests of Level Studios, a digital company based in San Luis Obispo. Level, a Rosetta company, plans to expand its operations in the area and is in the process of identifying property to start a new building, which will give it the capacity to double its workforce.

“It’s getting to that mid-level manager,” Hill said of hiring more head-of-household employees. “These people already have families, and it’s a real gamble for them to take a job here. The better we are in terms of creating a real sort of business-friendly climate, it’s going to help.”

Kris Vardas, a member of the building, design and construction cluster, EVC board chairman and senior planner at PG&E, said he and his wife, who also works for PG&E, married in Arroyo Grande in 1994, but moved to Sacramento because they thought they wouldn’t be able to both find work in the county.

In 2002, they relocated from the state capital to the county, despite the fact that it took them several months to get jobs.

Vardas said they were fortunate.

But other families have not been as successful in gaining employment and making a life here, and it’s up to the community to put the county’s economy and jobs picture on the right track, Vardas said.

“Others couldn’t make it work and have had to move out of the area or out of state,” he said.

“We’re not going to wait for Sacramento or Washington,” he said. “If we want to improve things here locally, we’re going to do it ourselves.”

Business and county team up to get results

Work within the cluster groups is yielding results that will have long-lasting impacts on the local economy, members say.

The building and construction cluster, for example, has been working with county officials to streamline the permitting and planning process for builders and developers through a special process-improvement committee.

As well, the groups have worked with county staff to ensure that staff reports on project proposals and land-use policies include several sentences that identify how they would impact the business clusters within the economic strategy.

Increasing the amount and quality of information on the economic benefits and impacts of proposed development projects — such as jobs created, sales and property tax benefits — will ultimately result in better and more successful projects, said Don Maruska, a local business coach and author who has worked on the strategy’s development.

“Right now, there’s an elaborate process in place to evaluate environmental impacts, but not the tools to identify the economic benefits and impacts,” Maruska said.

Networking opportunities

For business leaders such as Kevin Meyer, president of Specialty Silicone Fabricators in Paso Robles and a member of the specialized manufacturing cluster, the economic strategy is about networking and sharing ideas with others in the industry that can help companies become more efficient, grow and add jobs.

“We have come across numerous manufacturers we were not aware of,” he said. “After several monthly meetings, we have begun to recognize what our individual competencies are. Since virtually none of us compete with each other, we can freely share that knowledge, which will help all of us.”

The cluster — or what Meyer refers to as an alliance — is making it easier for those in specialized manufacturing to have a voice when influencing policy at the city and county levels, he said.

Meyer also noted that the economic strategy is helping to spread the word to county residents that specialized manufacturing exists.

“Our cluster is a bit unique in that we are “importers of dollars,” he said. “Almost none of our manufacturing companies sell to customers in the county. Many of us don’t even sell to customers in the state. So, every time we sell something, we are bringing dollars into the county, which creates jobs and the ability to purchase goods and services, which creates other jobs.”

Jackie Crabb, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau and a member of the Uniquely SLO County cluster — one of the largest of the six — said it’s going to take all of the industries working together to attract people to the area.

Crabb said branding the county as a tourist destination for locally grown and produced food, wine and experiences is one way to grow the county’s economy. But working with other businesses to market and promote will give the county the marketing push it needs to bring an even greater number of visitors.

“We’ve talked about cross clusters working together,” she said. “Business folks can bring in people from all over. They come here for business reasons, and then they realize that this is a cool visitor destination, and they bring the family.”

It also fits in with agriculture and health care, promoting healthy eating, and perhaps working with a local hospital to establish a farmers market on site, she said.

Joy Barlogio, owner of Jack Creek Farms in Paso Robles, said she’s excited about the potential to highlight local products. She acknowledged that she could hardly wait until she can place stickers saying “Uniquely SLO County” on the products at her farm stand.

“What I’m hoping is that people realize when they put their grocery dollars toward a local product, that puts dollars back in the pipeline locally,” she said.

“If I have a good day at the farm stand, I may have dinner at AJ Spurs and stop by the little florist place next door to buy flowers, or get a light bulb at the hardware store in our community,” she said.

“It’s an example of how dollars can change hands over and over, and how that same dollar bill can enrich multiple lives, multiple times.”

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