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Sunday, May 3, 2009
Ventura often gets a tagged for being a great place to live and a bad place to do business. But quality of life and prosperity don’t have to conflict with each other. Yesterday morning, more than a hundred community leaders gathered at City Hall for our first-ever “Economic Summit” – organized jointly by the City and the Chamber of Commerce.
I’m happy to report that the energy in the room was extremely positive. In fact, it was one of the most productive sessions of this type I’ve ever seen. Everybody in the room participated in breakout sessions dealing with different topics – the city’s own fiscal health, improving the business climate, retaining businesses, and so forth – and came back at the end of the morning with suggestions for how we as a community should move forward. Then the City Council took quick action to pursue some of the highest-priority items.
The starting point was the 2005 Economic Development Strategy – a document adopted by the city council to provide priorities for the city’s economic development efforts. These priorities included focusing on the auto center and the McGrath property, as well as figuring out how we can attract more high-wage jobs to Ventura in the future.
Biotech Opportunities And CMH
I spent most of the morning with the group dealing with business retention. It was a great group of about 10 or 15 people, and actually we wound up debating not just how to retain businesses in town, but also how to position the city better to attract startups and growing companies – especially in the high-tech and biotech sectors.
We’ve been talking for a number of years about the fact that Ventura is surrounded by one of the nation’s richest environments for high-tech and biotech startup companies. We’ve got UC Santa Barbara and a lot of venture capitalists to the north of us, and Amgen and some of the most important biotech activity in the nation to the south of us. A lot of the people who work in these businesses already live in Ventura – and many more find Ventura an attractive and (believe it or not) affordable alternative to places like Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara.
We’ve tried to market Ventura as the place “where the digital coast meets the technology corridor.” In fact, though, we’re the place where the digital coast almost but doesn’t quite meet the technology corridor. Over the past couple of years, however, the city’s been able to take a couple of very important steps toward remedying this problem. We’ve partnered with a Santa Barbara venture capital firm in order to connect startup businesses with the folks who have money; and we’ve created a high-tech business incubator in the building behind City Hall to give some of these entrepreneurs a place to start out.
But at the breakout group on business retention, another urgent issue came up – the fact that biotech companies have particular space needs that are expensive and hard to come by. In particular, they need “wet lab” space, which require special plumbing and sterilization. At the business retention breakout group, two people I’d never met before – Colby Allen from Amgen (who lives downtown and rode his bike) and Theresa Hoenes from Fisher Scientific – talked about the great opportunities available to us in Ventura if we can create the right kind of space for high-tech and biotech companies. Amgen, for example, will sometimes fund outside folks as they develop a new product. Many of those folks would love Ventura (or live here already) but there’s no place for them to go.
This is where Community Memorial Hospital comes in. CMH is planning a big expansion that should open in 2013. The expansion is driven by the fact that CMH, like other hospitals in the state, must do a seimic retrofit. Patient rooms and surgeries would be moved to a new building, opening up CMH’s old building for other uses – like wet labs.
So I came away from Saturday’s summit convinced that the biggest change since 2005 is the opportunity that CMH provides – and the urgent need to move forward in partnership with biotech companies, venture capitalists, the hospital, entrepreneurs and many others to take advantage of a great opportunity that is on our doorstep.
Getting People Involved – And Working Together As Partners
The most remarkable thing about Saturday’s summit was the turnout. As I said, there were more than a hundred people there – and many of them were business and community leaders that I’d never met before. The Chamber of Commerce deserves enormous credit for the turnout – and the Chamber and our city staff together deserve credit for putting together a format that allowed a lot of creativity to flow out of the breakout groups. That gave us on the City Council a quick way to move on some of these great ideas.
The summit was a great model for how to get the public directly involved in setting – and implementing – the priorities of our community. I think we’ve gotten a justifiable rap in the last couple of years for being a little remote and not engaging the public as much as we should. But I’m proud to say that we’ve begun to turn that around in the last few months. Our task force on view protection – which presented its final recommendations to the City Council on April 6th – drew rave reviews even from Ventura Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (VCORD), the sponsor of next fall’s view initiative. Our blue-ribbon committee on the possibility of a sales tax also did a very good job of sorting through the issues, even though they had only a few weeks to do it. Now we can add the Economic Summit to this growing list of public involvement successes.
But we have to work together to do as well as plan. The weirdest part of Saturday was when we climbed back up on the dais and were suddenly separated again from everybody else – a group of elected officials far distant from a hundred constituents. Too often, the way things work in Ventura is that we do not work collaboratively with constituents and organizations in town. They come to our council meetings and ask us to solve their problems and fund their solutions – and, of course, we can’t do that in every case. The more we step down off the dais and work together with everybody else, the more likely we all are to succeed as a community.
Dealing With Landowners And Developers
And a clarifying post-script: Inevitably, issues about land use planning and development arose, and we heard the usual array of concerns about how our planning process works. Some of these concerns are valid (a recurring theme about the planning process is a lack of “customer service” – meaning, among other things, staff members who aren’t always clear or responsive or even friendly).
From the dais (again, separated from constituents!), I tried to address these concerns, but I didn’t do a very good job of it. What I was trying to say is that we have to be careful to separate out the concerns of people who have a legitimate gripe from those who don’t.
As I have said for several years, we have to decide what we want and what we don’t want and then make it easy for developers to give us what we want and difficult to give us what we don’t want. This is harder than it sounds.
A lot of developers complain that they are stuck in our planning process too long. Often, this is the case – and we owe it to those applicants to give them a quick decision about whether their projects are going to pass must with the city. Sometimes, however, applicants are trying to build projects that do not conform to our planning policies, which have usually been together after lengthy public discussion. We owe them a quick “no” – but developers sometimes have a hard time hearing no, and sometimes they are kicking around our planning process for a long time trying to figure out how to get us to change our minds. What I was trying to say was that we owe it to them – and to our constituents – to stick to our guns and make it clear that we are not going to lower our standards for applicants who want us to violate our own policies.
Similarly, I think we have to understand that there is sometimes a difference, as I was more or less accurately quoted in the paper as saying, between the short-term financial interests of landowners and the long-term prosperity of our community. Landowners often want to maximize the value of their land today by selling to today’s high bidder. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that yet another fast-food joint – or whoever can pay the highest price today – will help us achieve the enduring prosperity we all want, with good jobs and increasing community wealth that can help to maintain our city’s high quality of life. Again, my point was, let’s not lower the bar.