Friday, January 29, 2010

Ventura's High-Tech Incubator

It’s not very often that Downtown Ventura is the center of the Southern California high-tech world. Believe it or not, last night it was.

More than 200 people gathered last night at the Crowne Plaza to celebrate the early success of the Ventura Ventures Technology Center (V2TC) – the city’s high-tech incubator located at 505 Poli, the former county building behind City Hall. The event got huge publicity in the regional high-tech blogosphere. And most of the people who attended were NOT the usual local suspects, but heavy-hitting high-tech financiers, interesting high-tech entrepreneurs, and representatives of all our local colleges and universities, who are looking to make connections.

From the standpoint of Ventura’s long-term prosperity, the V2TC launch party was maybe the most important event we’ve had in Ventura in many, many years.

The purpose of the event was to showcase the V2TC incubator – a city-initiated effort to provide inexpensive but useful space for budding high-tech entrepreneurs. The incubator opened a year ago – meaning it’s been in operation during the worst economic climate in decades. From nothing 12 months ago, we now have no less than 10 budding companies housed in the incubator. Some of the most exciting ones are:

-- is a web site that allows people to use PayPal to give money (even money contained in gift cards) as a meaningful and fun gift.

-- Trade Desk is an exchange for online ad networks. Trade Desk founder Jeff Green’s last startup was sold to Microsoft after two years.

-- Geodelics has raised $3 million in venture capital and is creating what many folks are calling the most compelling platform for location-based information on the mobile web.

The incubator’s really important, but it’s only one part of Ventura’s broader economic development effort to target growing high-tech and biotech companies. The city took a radical approach, but we’re beginning to see results. Not only are young companies growing up in the incubator, but now Ventura has attracted its high-tech financiers – the BuenaVentura Fund, operated by John and Dan Peate of Thousand Oaks, who recently opened up shop in the old Bank of Italy building downtown. (That’s the one with Riviera Bistro downstairs.)

The way we went about this was not just radically but potentially controversial as well. Several years ago, the city set aside some funds for economic development (the money had resulted from a bond refinancing and therefore was what we call “one-time money”). After a lengthy discussion with the Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders in town, we realized that we were staring at a great opportunity. High-tech startups were spinning off of UC Santa Barbara (just like high-tech start-ups in the Silicon Valley spin off of Stanford) and biotech startups were spinning off of Amgen in Thousand Oaks, the world’s largest biotech company.

They call Santa Barbara “The Digital Coast” and the Calabasas-to-Camarillo corridor “The Technology Corridor”. We were billing ourselves as the place where “the Digital Coast meets the Technology Corridor,” but the truth was that the Digital Coast and the Technology Corridor were both overlooking us. An ocean of jobs and wealth were being created all around us, and yet were in the desert. There were a lot of reasons why: No university, a history as a blue-collar town, and, maybe most important, a longstanding reputation – deserved or not – as place where the city government was anti-business.

So we took most of the economic development money and used it to partner with DFJ Frontier, a high-tech financing company in Santa Barbara dedicated to assisting young high-tech companies in California but outside of Silicon Valley. It was a controversial move. To my knowledge, no municipality in America had ever invested in a venture capital fund before – and we could not guarantee that the companies would locate in Ventura. We did not take this step lightly. We knew the opportunity was there. Communities all over the country are launching economic development efforts base don the assumption that they can attract some Silicon Valley-style businesses, but in my experience they don’t really have a chance. They’re lacking the ingredients. We’re not. We have a great lifestyle that the entrepreneurs like, and we’re very close to the big institutions that spin off startups.

And the truth is we weren’t just investing in a fund. With DFJ’s help, the city soon began holding events for potential high-tech entrepreneurs here in town, connecting them with lawyers, financiers, and others. We also began to participate in The Biotech Forum, a network of entrepreneurs, financiers, and others in the Calabasas/Thousand Oaks area who focus on nurturing biotech startups in our region.

Soon we realized we needed a place for these newly financed entrepreneurs to grow their companies in a fun, creative environment, so we took a little of the economic development money to outfit one floor at 505 Poli (which we had just bought from the county) as a business incubator. All of a sudden, the entrepreneurs in this area who were getting funding from the venture capital companies had a place to have an office. And now, after one year, we have 10 companies – small ones, with only a few employees; but all of them have the potential to get big fast – creating lots of good jobs as well as wealth that can help endow our community for decades to come.

In the last 200 years, Ventura as a community has reinvented itself over and over again. It began as a farming town; then became a small port; and for a long time it was an oil town. Because of our close proximity to two Naval bases and our status as the county seat, we have had a strong complement of government jobs, which has brought us a lot of economic stability in recent years. In the last decade or so, we’ve had a flowering of music, arts, culture, and entertainment. And now we’re reinventing ourselves again – as a place where fast-growing companies in fast-growing sectors of the economy want to start up and grow.

One additional point: We sometimes get criticized for focusing too much on downtown and not enough on other parts of town. This is an understandable concern, since most Venturans don’t live downtown; and many folks think the only reason we at City Hall think downtown is important is to attract tourists to spend money. But the truth is downtown is crucial to attracting high-tech and biotech businesses as well.

Experience elsewhere has made it pretty clear that one of the keys to attracting the “creative class” of high-tech and biotech entrepreneurs and financiers. These folks want to live in communities that have a lot going on and have a great sense of place. They love downtowns and restaurants and music and culture and surfing. If we had not invested so much in our downtown over the last 20 years, the high-tech scene wouldn’t be happening here.

In closing, I’d like to do a shoutout to one key city staff member who has made this all happen – Alex Schneider, the manager of the incubator. Alex is always on top of the high-tech scene, and it’s his enthusiasm and savvy, as much as anything else, that is making this thing go. Thanks, Alex.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Managing Parking Downtown

Tonight the City Council took one of the final steps toward installing a system of paid parking on certain blocks downtown. By a vote of 5-2 (with Councilmembers Monahan and Andrews dissenting, as they usually do on this issue), the Council voted to purchase 62 pay stations that will be installed on Main Street, California Street, and a few other sidestreets downtown where almost all parking spaces are in use almost all the time.

Even though this was mostly a procedural items (we approved the concept of paid parking almost three years ago), it got a lot of publicity around town today because the Star chose to highlight it in an advance story titled "Ventura Poised To Charge For Downtown Parking Spaces". The online responses were not universally negative -- many people praised the idea -- but the range of reasons why people thought paid parking is a bad idea was pretty amusing. One person said that paid parking can't be sustained because downtown is doing so poorly; another person said that paid parking shouldn't be instituted because downtown is doing so well.

There's no question that paying for parking anywhere in Ventura is a big adjustment from what we're accustomed to, so it's understandable that a lot of people don't like the idea. But I think it's important to put the paid parking downtown in context. We're not charging for parking everywhere. In fact, the parking garage and all the public parking lots and the vast majority of onstreet parking spaces will be completely free of charge. We're charging at certain very high-usage downtown locations as part of a larger system of managing parking. In addition to paid parking, we're also using time limits on parking as well as residential permit parking as a way to manage the entire system. (See map.) This also requires better management of parking lots -- such as the one at Foster Library, which will be undergoing some changes.

Here's the idea: Some onstreet spaces downtown are in use 95-100% of the time -- especially along Main Street -- and so some people who come along looking for a space never find one. Meanwhile, other areas downtown are not anywhere near full. By creating a system of paid parking, time limits, and residential permit parking, we can free up spaces along Main Street and elsewhere for people who are only going to be there a short time (or are willing to pay money to park there), while encouraging other folks to park in the lots and garages, which are free.

The number of spaces that will have paid parking is small. There are about 7,000 parking spaces downtown, including about 4,000 public spaces. Of those, about 2,000 are in the garage and in lots and about 2,000 are on the street. The paid parking will apply to 431 spaces -- 280 on Main Street and the rest on the side streets. (I had previously said 280 altogether, but I was wrong.) If you choose to park in a paid space, you can pay with a credit card if you want and the system automatically tracks which stall your car is in, so you don't have to return to your car to put a piece of paper on the dashboard, as you do at the beach. If you find youself way down at the other end of the street and you're running out of time, just go to the nearest pay station and add more money.

One of the big fears is that people won't want to pay the parking fee, so they won't park in the spaces, and businesses downtown will suffer. But the paid parking system we're buying allows us to adjust the parking fee to meet the market demand. Our goal is to have, on average, 85% of the parking spaces used, with 15% vacant. (This is, of course, slightly lower than the situation now.) If we institute paid parking at $1 an hour (which is probably where we'll start) and use goes down to only 50% or 60%, then it's easy -- because it's a computerized system -- to lower the price until the usage goes up. If usage is too high -- 95-100%, which means no spaces are available -- then we can raise the price. In other words, we can respond to the market by changing the price, just as a private business would.

Although this kind of system is new to Ventura, it's pretty common throughout Southern California these days. You may have seen this kind of system in Glendale; I've used it in downtown Riverside. It definitely takes some getting used to -- no doubt about it. But once it is in place, we should be able to manage parking much better than now; and you'll have the choice of paying to park in an extremely convenient location or walking a little bit to park for free.

The money that's generated from the parking system will also help downtown. The money will go into a fund for downtown projects -- anything from picking up trash to steamcleaning sidewalks or even to help pay for an additional parking garage. Throughout Southern California, these parking revenues have helped make downtowns more attractive, not less.

Of course, if we charge for parking on the street in high-volume locations, then we have to manage offstreet parking better as well. So, for example, at Foster Library, we are working with the library agency to free up more parking spaces for library patrons. By getting some library employees to park all day in the upper lot, we're going to increase the number of spaces for patrons in the lot behind the library from 11 to 22, and the number of spaces for persons with disabilities from 2 to 4.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Rising Tide

The storms this week reminded us all how fragile Ventura is and how we must nurture our environment constantly in order to live here successfully -- and sustainably. High surf pounded the pier and damaged it somewhat; sinkholes appeared on Poli Street; and, apparently, a tornado briefly touched down in East Ventura.

So it's perhaps fitting that, earlier in the week, we had an event here at City Hall and heard from three people from the Ventura area who attended the recent Copenhagen climate change conference -- local teenage climate change activist Alex Loorz of Kids v. Global Warming, Sarah Otterstrom of the Ventura-based Paso Pacifico, which works on deforestation in Central America; and Andrew Dunn of the student-run UCSB Environmental Affairs Board. Unfortunately, Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia, who also went to Copenhagen, could not attend.

It was truly an inspiring evening. Many of us here in Ventura are familiar with Alec Loorz, a sophomore at El Camino High School, who has been a climate change activist since he was 12. But no so many of us in Ventura know of the work of Sarah Otterstrom, who has a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis and is doing remarkable work in Nicaragua from her base here in Ventura.

All of the participants are ardent environmentalists and therefore were somewhat disappointed with the accord that resulted from Copenhagen. Nevertheless, all were optimistic about the future. Alec, as usual, reminded us that this is an urgent issue for his generation and called upon us to "have the course" to dea with the issue on behalf of "your children and grandchildren."

It's always easy to say that no individual's actions can make much difference -- why should we stop driving when China's building new coal-fired power plants every day -- but Sarah did a good job of pointing out that "the U.S. is extremely pivotal" in fighting climate change -- no worldwide solution can occur without us making a big effort. She reminded us that there is no single solution -- everybody, everywhere in the world, has a role to play.

Especially here in Ventura, where we are threatened with sea-level rise -- if not in my lifetime, then at least in Sarah's and Alec's. If you want to estimate for yourself how sea-level rise might affect Ventura -- depending on different levels of inundation -- check out this interactive map at the web site

Alec, Sarah, and Rick will all be recognized at Monday's council meeting (1/25) for their involvement at Copenhagen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Terrific Saturday in Ventura

It’s raining today, but yesterday was a beautiful day – a great day to do great Ventura things. I missed the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market because of our special City Council workshop at the Marriott, but I did have two terrific experiences later on in the day that reinforced for me what a great place Ventura is to live.

In the afternoon Allison and I went up to Grant Park to watch “The Rocknockers” at work. In case you haven’t paid attention to this, it’s a terrific and mostly volunteer effort by the Serra Cross Conservancy and the New Mexico-based Stone Foundation to build dry stone (no mortar) walls along the stairs leading down to the Serra Cross. This “Japanese Dry Stone Walling Workshop” had about 30 participants, and it’s a precursor to the Stone Foundation’s annual International Stonework Symposium, which is being held here in Ventura beginning on Tuesday. The rocknocking has been fascinating to watch; and the resulting walls are a beautiful addition to Grant Park. You might want to go up and take a look – and also stop by Anacapa Brewing on Monday night, where the stone masons will be hanging out and enjoying the Rocknockers Ale created by Anacapa just for this occasion.

In the evening we headed over to Zoey’s fo catch the I-Heart tour, which was making a stop in Ventura. I love folk and acoustic music, and we have a fabulous – if occasionally underpublicized – folk music scene here in Ventura. Under the leadership of Steve and Polly Hoganson, Zoey’s has become the epicenter of this music scene. You can head up there almost any night of the week and hear fabulous folk music. The musicians from L.A. just love coming up – as we saw last night, when Arrica Rose and several other female artists did a great job of performing authentic, heartfelt original folk music. I-Heart is a nonprofit created by Arrica and a few other female musicians in L.A. to raise money for charitable causes, and last night’s money (for the wonderful I-Heart calendar among other things) went for relief to the victims of the tragic earthquake in Haiti.

Reinventing The Way We Run Our City

This weekend (Friday night, January 15th, and Saturday morning, January 16th) our City Council met in a less formal and more relaxed setting for our annual goal-setting workshop. It was a publicly noticed meeting – two, actually, one Friday and one Saturday – but we were able to break bread together at the restaurant at the Marriott Beach Hotel,

Over the past couple of weeks, I spent a lot of time talking with several other folks (principally former Mayor Christy Weir, Deputy Mayor Mike Tracy, City Manager Rick Cole, and City Clerk Mabi Plisky) about what we ought to cover. In the end, we decided the council should focus mostly on how we approach our upcoming budget decisions and how we might approach the question of raising revenue in the future as the economy changes. We also spent a little bit of time on council protocols. The Friday night session was devoted mostly to some comments by our leading local economist, Bill Watkins of California Lutheran University, about how the economy is changing and what that might mean for us. The Saturday session (which ran from around 9:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) wound up focusing mostly on how we might approach our priorities as our budget situation gets tighter than ever.

Rick did a good job of framing the question before us, which is – as he put it – “how to deliver $96 million of public services for $81 million”. The $96 million was the original budget we adopted in 2008-2009, before the 2008 economic meltdown, because that’s what we thought our revenue was going to be. The $81 million – a decline of more than 15% -- is the amount of revenue we’re actually likely to have this year. And next year. And probably the year after that.

The choices before us, Rick suggested, are these:

1. Stop providing some public services that the city has traditionally provided.
2. Cut compensation to our employees.
3. Reinvent how we provide many public services.
4. Muddle through.

One thing became immediately clear: We already do all of these things, and we’re likely to continue to do all of them in the future. So the question quickly became – which one of these is most important, and in what order should we do them?

The most important decision of the way was that the council made a unanimous, formal commitment to pushing ahead aggressively on #3 – reinventing how we provide many public services. It has become increasingly apparent that we can’t go on doing business the way we have always done it. It’s too expensive. We have to try to pay for part of this problem by increasing revenue; and we have to try to pay for part of it by decreasing costs, especially employee compensation, which accounts for 65% of our costs. But the big leap – the transformative leap – will come only if we figure out new and innovative ways to get things done, rather than simply relying on business as usual.

We committed ourselves to taking this one on in a big way in 2010. Look for a lot of ideas coming from the staff; and probably some special council workshops to discuss them.

Reinventing the way we do business is likely to be a long-term strategy, however; it’s not going to balance the budget this year. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve attached our budget problems head-on. In the face of declining revenue, we have actually continued to balance the budget. Some of this has come from cutting services, and some has come from cutting costs.

As I stated above, in the short run we are probably going to have to continue to do both. We began cutting services last year, but, as several councilmembers said on Saturday, we hit a wall where we were unwilling to cut services more. We also cut compensation as well, but this is a negotiating with our employees and takes time and effort to continue doing. Plus, we always must think about our ability to recruit and retain good people.

So the council didn’t reach consensus on which should be the priority in the short run – eliminating additional programs or cutting employee compensation. We did agree that we’ll probably have to do both – neither one or the other can probably get us there – and that we’ll be facing some tough choices in the year ahead.

I’ll talk more about reinventing public services – and about how we might promote greater prosperity – in the State of the City address on February 1 at City Hall.