For years, San Luis Obispo has suffered a severe shortage of well-paid, private sector jobs. Yet as a community, we’ve been oddly complacent about that deficit — as if low wages and lack of employment opportunities are the price we pay for living on the beautiful Central Coast.
But we don’t have to settle; this is not an either/or situation.
While we aren’t going to attract a giant Amazon warehouse — nor would we want one — the city can and should do a better job of recruiting small-to-mid-size firms, particularly in the vaunted hightech and light industrial sectors, as well as nurturing existing businesses that may be looking to expand.
It’s not going to be easy.
Every other community in the nation is trying to do the same thing, and as we know, many states have much lower bars when it comes to environmental regulations. Within California, the city must compete with communities that are willing to dangle shiny incentives in front of companies.
Again using the Amazon example, we recently saw the Central Valley city of Patterson agree to give the firm a share of its municipal sales tax to lure it into opening a “fulfillment center” there. Closer to home, the city of Atascadero decided to advance more than $2 million for road improvements needed to accommodate Walmart and other retail businesses.
In both those instances, we believe the cities went too far.
However, if San Luis Obispo is serious about meeting its goal of attracting more “head of household” jobs, it will likely have to provide some form of incentive to attract the businesses that provide them. That could be in the form of areduction in fees, expedited permit processing, assistance with infrastructure, or all of the above.
To its credit, the current San Luis Obispo City Council has decided to at least start that conversation.
Responding to community concerns, the council made economic development amajor goal for the 2011-2013 budget cycle — a worthy effort, when you consider that median household income ($40,812) in the city of San Luis Obispo is below both the countywide ($57,365) and statewide ($60,883) figures, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. No doubt, the city’s large student population is a factor, but nonetheless, we’ve long known that a large segment of the permanent population cannot afford San Luis Obispo’s high housing costs.
So where do we go from here?
As a first step, the City Council allocated $50,000 for an Economic Development Strategic Plan, a draft of which is now circulating.
The draft cites high fees and lack of infrastructure as two barriers to economic growth, and though not in so many words, it asks a couple of key questions:
Should the city reduce fees imposed on development to “incentivize” creation of higher paying jobs?
Should the city depart from its “development pays its own way” policy to help provide infrastructure that will be needed to accommodate business growth, particularly in the Margarita Area and the Airport Area?
As we said, those are important areas for discussion.
But there are many other barriers to business growth. Those, too, should be on the table, even if they aren’t listed in the plan.
For example, the draft plan is oddly silent on the issue of housing, even though it was not so long ago that lack of workforce housing was cited as the main impediment of attracting both employers and employees.
And while the plan stresses the need to streamline the processing of applications, it doesn’t acknowledge the huge role that community support — or opposition — plays in getting projects approved. Although it’s true that the city can’t control how the public will respond to any particular project or program, it can and should do a better job of delineating why we so desperately need more jobs — particularly high-paying positions — and what we can do to bring them to SLO.
The Economic Development Strategic Plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.
We strongly urge anyone who cares about the future of San Luis Obispo to read it and to join in the discussion.
Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.