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The following article was posted on December 5th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 40 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 40

Central Coast super region touted by local politicians and business leaders

By Spencer Cole

The idea is a simple one: Stop competing with your neighbors, share information, work collaboratively, and in turn foster growth. This is the sales pitch from a newly unveiled organization backed by 13 Central Coast chambers of commerce that aims "to tackle the region's systemic economic challenges" by creating a "super region" from Lompoc to Paso Robles. 

On Nov. 26, in a large conference room packed with some 200 local business leaders, public officials, and media, the nonprofit Hourglass Project was unveiled. The event that day featured short speeches from tech CEOs to congressional representatives, all giving full-throated support in favor of a regionalized approach driven by cooperation between Central Coast businesses and communities.

"Working together as a region will help me be a more effective advocate for this region in Congress," Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) said. 

Rick Stollmeyer, founder and CEO of San Luis Obispo-based tech firm Mindbody, told the crowd gathered that afternoon that it "is the perfect time to tell this message" of regional cooperation. 

"Our economy faces many challenges," he added. "The time to act is now if we want to compete successfully in an increasingly technical and complex economy."

According to its website, the The Hourglass Project's stated goal is to elevate the private sector to a leadership position within the community and "foster a collaborative, all hands approach to building a resilient Central Coast economy, from Vandenberg to Camp Roberts."

Tom Clark, a keynote speaker at the Nov. 26 event, is known as "the godfather of regionalism" in some business circles for his work in helping transform the Denver, Colorado, area following a major economic recession in the 1980s. 

He said the push for private-led development was a practical move. 

"They live in this community and have the capacity to move money faster than anybody else," Clark added, explaining that leaders in the business community had responsibilities as citizens to also be involved in local politics. "Dealing with public officials that don't understand the economy, or have issues against business, those folks can make your life just miserable."

Newly elected Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, who is also the executive director of the Northern Santa Barbara County nonprofit economic development group, Econ Alliance, told the Sun that the Hourglass Project's goals appeared to be in line with her own organization. According to Osborne, the Econ Alliance's board of directors was planning to meet in January to discuss how the two groups goals could potentially be aligned. 

"This discussion needs to happen, but we need to see how they are going to address the [needed] manpower that it takes to stay on top of all of this, effectively communicate their goals, and manage a database so everybody can see and fairly compete for these different projects," she said. "That's really going to be the most difficult part, that and getting financial support and surviving sort of those first three years to get it off the ground and running."

Osborne noted it may be difficult at first for some cities and communities to buy in to the idea of regional cooperation rather than a constant battle of trying to gain a competitive advantage. 

"I think that's going to be the biggest shift," Osborne said. "Learning to trust the different cities and counties and regional groups to say, 'Yes, we all agree that working together is better than competing against each other,' because you're also talking to businesses whose mentality is, 'You need competition to survive'–it's what drives the viability of a competitive market."

Another issue standing in the Hourglass Project's way has to do with communication, Osborne said. It's routine for businesses to hold the reasons why they chose to move and set up operations in a particular community close to the chest. Likewise, those businesses are equally hesitant to tell the public or even government officials why they leave. 

Organizations like Osborne's Econ Alliance or the Hourglass Project hope to remedy that by convincing businesses it's in their best interests to share that information. 

"We need a trust that says, 'We're respecting you as a company,'" Osborne said. "We just need information so we're not taking anything from your ability to do business. What we are doing is building the case for why you might choose each different location, but unless we have the context and we know what skill sets are required for you and the infrastructure you need, we can't help you." 

Osborne pointed to two businesses that recently left the Goleta area in favor of Orange County as an example of the current communication system hindering growth on the Central Coast. 

"And they leave Goleta instead of thinking, 'Well, if we just went up the coast a bit we'd still have the Central Coast lifestyle, the cost of living reduced, and we'd still have access to UCSB," she said. 

However, since there's no organization serving as both a keeper and collector of economic data to assist businesses with relocating, nor an intermediary to serve between those firms and the government, the Goleta example is more common than politicians and business leaders would prefer, according to Osborne.

"Those businesses might stay in the future if they knew there was good land available in a close enough place to relocate like Santa Maria or Lompoc," she said. 

"So it's about gathering that vital information, making sure it's available and transparent in both directions, and then having somebody be available to put time and energy into it," she added. "Then we can tell cities and the county, 'This is what we are hearing, these companies aren't coming because this piece of infrastructure is missing, or this specific service is missing and that's why we are missing out on these types of jobs and that type of growth.'" 

Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at scole@santamariasun.com.

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