Three hundred of the South Coast’s top business leaders gathered Monday afternoon to talk cooperative regional economic development plans with elected officials and municipal administrators. With both the private and public sectors struggling under the lingering downturn, a coalition of business groups has been meeting for nearly 10 months to try to improve the local economy.
In its first public event, the South Coast Business Forum invited the business and government communities to the Reagan Room at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort to share ideas on working together.
To get a few dozen business owners and executives in a room on fairly short notice is a feat. To get a few hundred is a remarkable accomplishment. Still, a sparse turnout on the government side illustrated that the conversation — at least for now — is more like a monologue. Other than the panelists, I counted two Santa Barbara County supervisors and one councilman each from Carpinteria and Santa Barbara.
The forum was the brainchild of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Carpinteria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Barbara Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization, the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission, the National Association of Women Business Owners’ Santa Barbara chapter, the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging and Restaurant Association and the Santa Barbara Technology & Industry Association.
The groups started meeting earlier this year to try to develop regional strategies to coax economic growth and job creation. Organizers said Monday’s event — sponsored by Cox Communications and MarBorg Industries — will be the first of many on the topic.
It was a good first step. On a long road.
The panelists — Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and City Administrator Jim Armstrong, Goleta Mayor Eric Onnen and City Manager Dan Singer, Carpinteria City Councilman Al Clark and City Manager Dave Durflinger, and 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf and new County Executive Officer Chandra Wallar — outlined how they and their governments were helping to create a climate of success for local business.
Schneider distributed a list of 15 points on which she said Santa Barbara and its neighbors have been working together. Two that she highlighted were the Measure A coalition that helped pass the renewal of a half-cent sales tax to fund area transportation and transit improvements, as well as a not-yet-implemented low-cost loan program for energy conservation projects. She called both of the initiatives “stimulus programs” that are, or will, create local jobs. Click here for the complete list.
Armstrong added that the best thing local governments can do to help the local economy “is to do our job well,” citing what he called “the basics”: safe neighborhoods, clean streets and well-maintained parks. Boasting about the city’s very low commercial, office and industrial vacancies, he added that just about every other community in California is envious of Santa Barbara.
Durflinger said Carpinteria’s municipal government worked with the community on its downtown revitalization, which has become a magnet for residents, shoppers, tourists and businesses. A frequent partner is the Carpinteria Valley Chamber of Commerce, which he credited with helping the city streamline its permitting process, along with Carpinteria’s plentiful special districts.
Goleta, the county’s newest city, has been busy establishing a governing framework in its first eight years of incorporation but has begun shifting its attention to economic strategies.
“As with a business, our first few years have been focused on building the business — our city,” Singer said. “And just recently have we even had the capacity to focus on long-term business development.”
Goleta has hardly been sitting on the sidelines, however. Singer pointed out the positive effects of neighboring UCSB’s record of entrepreneurialism, with nearly 200 start-up companies spun off campus in the last 10 years, and added that the City Council has been working with staff on a long-range economic development plan for the city.
Additionally, he noted that this year alone the council has approved three hotels, 1 million square feet of industrial and office space, and 1,100 housing units, all in a city with just a 4.5 percent unemployment rate — eight points below California’s.
Onnen, however, was the most animated on the panel. As the owner of Santa Barbara Airbus, he has a foot in each world, and he’ll be returning full time to the business one next month after serving four years on the council, the last year as mayor.
“What does business want?” he asked. “Get out of our way!”
Onnen said that even on the more contentious issues the city had to resolve in its arduous General Plan process, Goleta’s business community was not questioning the destination but the route.
“We tried to protect flexibility,” he said of the council. “How we shape regulation, especially land-use policy, is difficult but the outcome is not in question. We want the same results. The question is how do we get there.”
After an hour of hearing government leaders talk, business owner Steve Engles bluntly asked how the Santa Barbara officials could say they’re providing safe streets and a clean city when “we have a major problem with the homeless and gangs.”
“This is not a compassion issue,” he said. “It’s a public-safety one.”
Armstrong replied that the city has “put a lot of resources into the gang issue,” and he listed some of the collaborative successes that the regional gang task force has had since its inception. But he cautioned that there’s no single solution.
“We have to look at all facets of the problem,” he said.
“Government can only be part of the solution,” she said. “What I really hope is that we can come together as a community.”
She said last week’s defeat of the Measure S “jail tax” was not helpful.
“Jail overcrowding makes infractions and misdemeanors meaningless,” she said.
Addressing the homeless issue, Jeanette Webber, managing partner of the Santa Barbara Hotel Group, asked why a community policing program being used in Carlsbad couldn’t be implemented here. She said the volunteer officers are retirees trained in basic security work, and they’re given badges, radios and marked vehicles.
“The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau spends a lot of money to advertise our community, and then tourists who encounter a bad experience here with the homeless write negative comments on social media,” Webber said.
A volunteer force, she said, would help deter such incidents.
Steve Amerikaner, a partner and land-use attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, suggested that government officials need to do a better job balancing economic concerns with environmental ones.
“We manage to regulate many things that have a limited effect on the public good, but they impose significant burdens on our economy,” he said.
“Simplify the rules. Put as much emphasis on economic features as we do on our physical features. We need to restore balance.”
Wolf maintained that Santa Barbara County’s physical beauty is its best attribute.
“If you want to look at economics,” she said, “you have to ensure environmental vibrancy.”
“With all of the boards and commissions here, how come none of you have a business or economic development commission?” he asked, citing Thousand Oaks’ Business Roundtable as an example of how government can work more closely with the business community.
Singer replied that Goleta often collaborates with the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, while Wolf offered up the San Mateo County Economic Development Association as a potential model for Santa Barbara County.
Once again bridging the divide between the two sides, Onnen exhorted business representatives to get involved — and stay involved — in the process of government.
“Your perspective is so much different from the public sector’s,” he said. “It’s important that we in government hear it.”