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Santa Barbara County Economic Vitality Team Says Regional Collaboration Key to Growth

Recently created organization held its first summit to chart a course for local economic development and prosperity

The heads of local chambers of commerce discuss their priorities and strategies at Tuesday’s Economic Vitality Team summit. Click to view larger
The heads of local chambers of commerce discuss their priorities and strategies at Tuesday’s Economic Vitality Team summit. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

The moral of the story at Tuesday’s Economic Vitality Team summit was that cities and counties need to collaborate with their local businesses to improve their economic vitality.   

“Increasingly, economic development is a regional exercise,” said Bruce Stenslie, head of Ventura County’s Economic Development Collaborative.

Stenslie and business and government leaders from around Santa Barbara County gathered in Buellton for the county-wide EVT’s first-ever summit.

The two-year-old EVT’s goal is to retain, expand and attract businesses, facilitate job growth and support entrepreneurs. At its core are the county’s chambers of commerce, and it also includes government and business leaders. 

Despite the regional Central Coast economy, it’s a newcomer compared to Ventura County’s Economic Development Collaborative and San Luis Obispo County’s Economic Vitality Corporation.

“I think, quite frankly, our neighbors to the north and south have gotten further faster, and have probably been waiting for us to show up,” said Glenn Morris, president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“For too long, Santa Barbara County has probably been the missing link in that regional conversation.”

He said that regional interconnectivity is seen, for instance, in the employees at San Luis Obispo County’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant who live in North County. The plant, which employs nearly 1,500 people, is slated to close in 2025.

Ken Oplinger, Morris’ counterpart at the Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region, told attendees at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott that the EVT aims to be a repository of economic development data for businesses and promote the county as an attractive place to do business.

Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Glenn Morris said a regional mindset is important to the success of his organization and the city. Click to view larger
Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Glenn Morris said a regional mindset is important to the success of his organization and the city.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

The first collaborative project between the three organizations is to improve broadband speed and access in the Tri-County region and leaders from each county emphasized that local collaboration is as important as regional partnerships. 

If a business isn’t going to work out in one Santa Barbara County city, its chamber of commerce should be able to refer it to a more suitable city, Oplinger said.

Chamber leaders agreed that one of the greatest challenges they face is the limited availability of affordable workforce housing.

In addition to low vacancy rates, Santa Barbara County is the ninth least affordable place to live in the state, said County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato — an improvement from third least affordable.

“It’s not just something Santa Barbara can do alone,” Oplinger said. “It’s something we have to work with everybody on.”

With the EVT, cities can better help each other with business growth rather than compete for it, said Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo.

The key to any county-level economic vitality group is robust public–private partnership, said Bruce Stenslie, the head of Ventura County’s Economic Development Collaborative. Click to view larger
The key to any county-level economic vitality group is robust public–private partnership, said Bruce Stenslie, the head of Ventura County’s Economic Development Collaborative. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

“We’re responsible to our neighboring cities as well,” she told Noozhawk. “We’re working together here to create economic opportunity for everyone, and then we’re responsible for housing and transportation as well. That’s what supports good business.”

As the wealthiest and second-largest city in the county, she said, “we need to contribute to this effort with resources and staff.

“I’m very concerned about creating good-paying jobs in the South Coast and in the county,” she continued. “This is the way to do it.”

In her economic profile of the county, Miyasato said the leisure and hospitality industry is the fastest-growing sector of the local economy, with the most economic growth occurring in North County, and especially in Santa Maria.

She reported that the county of more than 450,000 people had a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in December.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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