So if we are in a new war -- this one for business and job growth -- what role does local government play?
It would be a mistake to over-emphasize the role of government, especially at the local level. Despite the claims of politicians from both parties about how many jobs their policies "created," governments don't create jobs, at least not in the private sector. Ventura, for example, is estimated to generate about seven to eight billion dollars in annual economic activity. The sales and profitability of thousands of individual businesses are only marginally impacted by what goes on at City Hall, no matter what cheerleaders or critics might claim.
Still, local government can obviously contribute to a healthier economic climate -- and it can certainly get in the way of one.
There are four broad areas where our impact (good and bad) is greatest: services and infrastructure; taxation; regulation; and encouragement.
When local Chambers of Commerce advocate for "business-friendly" policies, they usually underplay the most important function of local government: providing vital services (from policing to clean water) and key infrastructure (from roads to sewer pipes). That's the core function of government, and the more cost-effectively local government does that, the better it is for local business.
Yet it's taxation, regulation and "encouragement" that advocates and critics focus on, and argue over endlessly. Important questions. But there is a catalytic spark when encouraging business starts with two simple words: teamwork and focus.
That's where we in Ventura are putting our energy to grow business and high value, high wage jobs.
We've put together a team to focus on the business sectors that will drive economic recovery. Alex Schneider directs our successful Ventura Ventures Technology Center. With thirteen start-up high tech businesses, it's the tangible outcome of our intense focus on new economy business development. On the first of May, Joey Briglio returns to work on green business development. We are transferring Eric Wallner from the Community Services Department to capitalize on his expertise in growing our visitor and creative business sector.
These new assignments complete the team that also includes Economic Development Manager Sid White and Ventura Business Ombudsman Alex Herrera. White concentrates on Downtown Redevelopment, real estate, Auto Center redevelopment, general business assistance/loan programs, and ongoing work with County Economic Development organizations. Herrera provides personal access and follow-through for local businesses of all sizes. All are assigned to the Community Development Department under Director Jeff Lambert. As City Manager, I'm taking a hands-on approach to working directly with all of them on our new business strategy.
This is our team. This is our focus.
Past battles over land use gave Ventura a reputation for being "anti-business." We can argue ‘til the cows come home whether this was fair or not. But why re-fight those battles? We’re in a new war and our goal is to change our reputation by winning the battles ahead.
Almost nobody in Ventura wants to pave the city with oversized real estate overdevelopment. Almost everybody wants robust business growth to generate local jobs, enhance the range of private goods and services available to local residents, and to augment revenue to support public services. When 200 Ventura business and community leaders assembled last May for our Economic Summit, what emerged was a community consensus that is as wide as it is deep: focus on growing our own businesses, especially green ones -- and increasingly, every business is turning greener.
In all the buzz about ‘green jobs’ in the energy sector, it’s important to focus on ‘clean tech’ innovation in every field. Our own Patagonia is a blue-chip model for the green future. In recent years, top executives from Walmart, GE and other global giants have visited Patagonia’s downtown Ventura headquarters to study their rigorous focus on reducing waste and shifting to more sustainable supply chains. Is Patagonia a pioneer in renewable forms of energy? No, they make outdoor clothes. Their local workforce exemplifies the opportunity America – and even high-cost coastal California – still has to lead the world in producing globally-competitive quality products and services.
It was a theme hammered home by Mayor Bill Fulton in his State of the City speech this year:
“We are fortunate to be located close to two major economic engines… that constantly spin off startup businesses in the high-tech and biotech centers: UC Santa Barbara to our north and Amgen to our south.
In the past two years, Ventura has made a major effort — unlike any other city in this region — to connect with these institutions, with startup entrepreneurs, and with venture capitalists, to encourage spin-off businesses to locate and grow here in Ventura. And it’s working. Today — for the first time — we are part of the high-tech/biotech business ecosystem.
“This is a time of great change and uncertainty in our society. Old ways of doing things are falling by the wayside quickly, and new ways are emerging rapidly. Such times can be frightening, but they are also pregnant with great possibilities. We in Ventura are very determined and well positioned to take advantage of those opportunities in order to reinforce Ventura as a great place to live and work.”
For a city committed to living within our means, we are focusing our team on earning a reputation that Ventura is serious about winning the new war for jobs. We hope to be a pioneer in forging strategy and tactics that will set the standard for other cities in California tackling the urgent task of reinventing the California dream. Reinvigorating the seventh largest economy on the planet will be based on victory in the war on jobs.
This article is part two of a two-part series by Rick Cole on the war for jobs.
Flckr photo of Ventura at night by Wink
Rick Cole is city manager of Ventura, California, and 2009 recipient of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California's Excellence in Government Award. He can be reached at RCole@ci.ventura.ca.us