Thursday, March 3, 2011
Even as funding for existing public programs faces deep cuts, Monterey County is cobbling together a budget to create an Economic Development Department.
“We are in a time of crisis,” Redevelopment and Housing Director Jim Cook told county supervisors at their March 1 meeting. “Resources are getting skinnier by the moment. It’s absolutely critical that we act with urgency.”
The numbers are bleak. Monterey County has a 12.2 percent unemployment rate compared to 9.4 nationally, and plummeting construction. At the peak of the bubble in 2007, the county issued 273 building permits; in 2010 it issued 84, 70 percent of which were for affordable housing.
The Board of Supervisors on March 1 approved a public-private economic development committee. A search for a department director – tasked with implementing the board’s strategic initiative to “actively engage in appropriate economic development” – is underway and county officials hope to hire someone by July, at a salary of about $160,000. The new department will bring existing economic development entities – and their budgets – under one roof. The combined budgets of those departments is about $34 million.
A dedicated economic development leader will help “avoid a knee-jerk response,” says Supervisor Dave Potter, who sits on the committee. The current piecemeal system of reviewing business interests one by one means a lack of focus and understanding of incentives, Potter says. “I’m very very tired of seeing subdivisions come in as our ‘economic development.’”
The department will serve as a single point of entry for businesses interested in setting up shop in the county. Citing a need for collaboration between jurisdictions, the California Association for Local Economic Development, which advised the county on creating the new department, says it detected “a defensive sense of ‘turf’” among players. Potter says he hopes the reorganization moves the county away from what CALED describes as “an atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and lack of confidence in county government.”
The economic development director will manage the Housing and Redevelopment Department and the Workforce Investment Board, leaders among the county’s 24 economic development entities, which include the business and cultural councils and film commission.
WIB receives $6 to $10 million in federal funding each year to provide job skills training for economically disadvantaged workers, but anticipates a 30 percent cut. WIB Chair Erik Cushman, also the Weekly’s publisher, says the new department will couple job skills with job creation. For WIB’s mission to be relevant, “The jobs have to be there.”
The business leaders recommended to the committee include one dedicated agriculture seat – the only such position on any county board. Potter hopes this will foster a better understanding of how to preserve ag business needs.
Cushman says the committee will provide excellent industry knowledge, but adds it “could also benefit from having more scrappy, enterprising start-up types.”