Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Building Ventura's Enduring Prosperity

Adapted from the Chamber of Commerce State of the City address:

Over the past few weeks, I have talked a lot about the need for Ventura to build a new and enduring prosperity that will last a generation or more. Partly because of the current economic conditions, I’ve gotten a strong and positive response from people in Ventura on the need to rebuild prosperity.

But I’ve also come to realize that prosperity means different things to different people. For a resident who’s a homeowner, it probably means a stable job with a stable income and rising home value. For a local retailer, it means more sales in the cash register. For a business owner, it means rising sales and profits. For the city, it means more revenue and therefore more ability to provide Venturans with the high quality of life they want and deserve.

But to all of us, I think it means the process of building an enduring prosperity – a sense of economic well-being in our community that is durable, widely shared, and can help provide a stable income for most people, tax revenue to provide public services, and philanthropic wealth to endow the future. Achieving this kind of prosperity is not as easy as simply luring a retail store into town or subsidizing an auto dealer. It’s a long-term effort that requires both intensity and focus.

I have spent most of my life trying to understand how cities work, and I can say one thing: whether they grow or increase in population or not, they never stay the same. To prosper – and to maintain a high quality of life – cities have to reinvent themselves economically again and again.

Ventura has already reinvented itself many times -- from mission town to fishing town to agricultural center to oil boomtown to surf town government town – and we remain all these things to some extent today. But we cannot stand still. We must continue to forge ahead, reinvent ourselves – find enduring prosperity in the 21st Century global economy while retaining the small-town feel we all cherish.

When I read over that line – that our little town has to find enduring prosperity in the 21st century global economy – it sounds kind of pompous. After all, we’re just Ventura! But every city, big or small, must find its place in the larger economy, whether that city is in California or Europe or South America or China. That is what we did when we were primarily an oil town, and that is what we did when we were primarily a citrus town. And that is what we must do now.

We must identify our niche and aggressively pursue it, or else we risk the idea of having other people -- from other places -- define who we are.

When most businesses and communities sit down to figure out their future, they chart out different scenarios. They begin what a “business as usual” or “default” scenario, and then they craft a “preferred” scenario. Then they figure out what’s required to get to the future they prefer -- rather than stumble into the future by default.

I think we in Ventura are at a critical moment in understanding what our “default” future might be, and we must take steps collaboratively to counteract that “default” approach and, instead, build a future we really want.

Because the “default” future for us is different from what we have always been. And by working together, we can create a better, more prosperous future that will help pay for our quality of life for many years to come.

Throughout our history, Ventura has always had a proud history of producing things. Oil and citrus are the two most obvious examples, though there are others. The most important point, however, is that we produced things -- we exported them to the world -- and we reaped the benefits of wealth created here locally.

This is not the future that is emerging for Ventura – at least if we do nothing. Our “default” or “business as usual” future does not revolve around producing. It revolves around consuming. Increasingly, the economic base of our community focuses on bringing people into our community – visitors, retirees, and commuters – who bring their money from somewhere else and spend it here.

I want to emphasize that visitors, retirees, and commuters all play an important role here in Ventura. These are robust sectors of our economy. They are important to our local businesses. We value every one of them, and I will talk more in a few minutes about how we can best leverage their presence.

But I want to emphasize that if our future in Ventura consists only of visitors, retirees, and commuters, then we will lose something very precious about Ventura, and we will be giving our future prosperity away on terms that we should not accept.

The single most precious thing about Ventura is that it feels like a small town. This is a ridiculous thing to say, since we are a city of over 100,000 people. Yet we do feel this way, because we all see each other all the time. At work. At school. At the market. And at youth sports activities. Why? Because, far more than the average community, people who live in Ventura also work here. One of my greatest fear is that we will lose this small-town feel as more and more people commute OUT to other places in the morning and more and more people commute IN to Ventura FROM other places in the morning. This is happening more and more. You can feel it.

If we continue with “business as usual,” eventually we will become almost exclusively a community where people who have made their money in other places live and visit. This is good in many ways, I don’t deny that, but it threatens our small-town feel. It will tend to create a two-tier economy with a lot of low-paid service workers, and it will turn Ventura into something we have never been before.

And how do we maintain that small-town feel -- that precious balance? We do it by ensuring that Ventura is still a place where things are produced. A place where the jobs created are filled by people who live here, and a place where the wealth generated here stays here. A community that produces things will spin off related businesses, including suppliers, and will also create better-paying jobs, so there is less risk that a two-tier economy will emerge.

So how do we here in little Ventura do that?

Well, in the 19th Century, we rode the agricultural wave -- and produced food that was exported to the rest of the country and the world.

In the 20th Century, we rode the oil wave -- and produced oil that was exported to the rest of the country and the world.

The 21st Century, on the other hand, will be the century where creativity and innovation drive prosperity, especially here in the United States. We must find our place in this economy, and we must work aggressively and cooperatively to establish ourselves.

Everything we are moving forward with right now on the economic front is focused on exactly this goal – and these efforts are tightly intertwined.

Sometimes, hard-core business people in town criticize us for our commitment to arts and culture. But we’re in that game for a reason: Arts and culture are important as a way to connect to the fast-growing creative and innovation economies regionally and worldwide, which we in Ventura must be a part of in order to prosper in the future.

The creative arts – performance, visual arts, graphic and architectural design, publishing, fashion -- represent one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy. No American city will be able to prosper in the future without nurturing these creative arts. The future of the creative arts in Ventura is virtually unlimited – and essential to our future in so many different ways

Over the last year, we have increased our visibility in Hollywood with the Film Ventura! Initiative – kicked off last fall at our downtown movie complex. This effort has reminded us that we have an enormous supply of local film talent here in Ventura – actors, craftspeople, and even many writers and producers. Location shooting is fun to have, but we want high-value-added parts of the entertainment production process as well.

We’ve also strengthened our connection with our most important local educational institution dealing with the creative arts, Brooks Institute. Hundreds of Brooks film and video students already live and work in Ventura, and I recently met with Brooks’s new president, Susan Kirkland, to reaffirm our mutual commitment to each other. Brooks is a critical component of Ventura’s creative economy – attracting talented young people to Ventura and helping us to attract regional and national attention.

The creative economy is important to our future prosperity, but it will not sustain us all by itself. The creative economy is important to Ventura for a much bigger reason as well: It provides us with an important connection to the worldwide innovation economy. The creating of new products and new services – especially using the the Internet – today serves as the engine of the global economy.

No city can prosper in the 21st Century without strong, local innovators. Innovators are themselves creative and they thrive on a lively and creative local community.

That’s why our Ventura Ventures Technology Center on the 3d Floor of 505 Poli Street has been so successful. V2TC is now home to 19 startup companies and more than 50 employees.
The entrepreneurs located there are changing the way the world uses information – through online advertising, geographic location systems, online marketing, and many other innovative ideas. This is the 21st Century equivalent of citrus or oil production. These companies are inventing high-value-added products that will be used throughout the world and, in the process, creating good-paying jobs and wealth that will stay here in Ventura.

They’re drawn to Ventura not just by this incubator but also by the high quality of life, the recreational opportunities, and the creative buzz in our downtown.

The other day I got a Facebook message from one of our downtown restaurant owners, who said that although he was happy we had these fledgling businesses, he believes we need “real” companies that provide lots of jobs. He still feels the loss of Kinko’s, he said.

I understand that concern. But what we’re trying to do at the incubator is work with these entrepreneurs to create the next business that will create 50, or 100, or 500, or 1,000 jobs – and keep all those jobs and all that wealth here in Ventura. And it will happen.

We also know that businesses cannot succeed without startup capital. And local capital is especially important. If we can finance our innovative companies through local sources, then the resulting wealth will stay in our community, to be recycled into yet more business ventures and also providing the basis for local philanthropy.

I’m grateful to our local banks and financial institutions for their commitment to our community. My business has a long relationship with Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. Just as important, however, is the fact that the angel investors and venture capitalists who help the startups and the fledging businesses that are creating and inventing new products have also discovered Ventura. Tech Coast Angels, an investor group, meets regularly in town now to hear “pitches”. The City has a partnership with DFJ Frontier, a venture capital firm, investing in businesses that could pay off here. And recently Peate Ventures – a venture capital firm from Westlake Village – moved to Downtown Ventura and has funded some of the incubator startups.

I am very hopeful the expansion of Community Memorial Hospital will create new opportunities for entrepreneurial activity in the biomed field here in Ventura, as we are located so close to Amgen and other critical biomed players.

This, then, must be our preferred scenario – for Ventura to continue to be a community that produces products and wealth for the rest of the world, just as we have been for 140 years, rather than a place like Santa Barbara, which – beautiful though it is -- simply consumes products and wealth gathered from elsewhere in the world. This kind of prosperity will bring better-paying jobs to Ventura. It will also ensure that the wealth generated here stays here – thus providing our community with an endowment for quality of life, just as the Bards and the Fosters once endowed our community with institutions and parks that we still enjoy every day.

Now, you may have gotten the idea that I think we shouldn’t focus on visitors and retirees and commuters, and if you’re in the real estate business or the hospitality business that probably scares you. But that’s not really what I meant to convey. My point is not that we shouldn’t pursue those folks, but that we need to leverage their presence in helping to rebuild Ventura as a town that produces things.

Every visitor and every retiree is a potential investor in some new business in Ventura. I’ve seen this time and time again – they come here and they like it, and the next thing you know they are moving their business here or creating a new one. That’s a great thing. And every commuter weary of driving to L.A. or Santa Barbara is a potential entrepreneur – eager to build their dreams here in Ventura and help us build ours.

My point here is that we tend to view bringing these folks into town as an end in itself – a way to generate hotel bed nights or real estate sales. What we really need to do is view these efforts as an economic development tool – to help promote Ventura as a place where entrepreneurs and investors can find the ecosystem they need to thrive.

And if you’re in a business-to-business service business – as so many Chamber members are – you’ll be winners if we’re successful too. Helping startups – and then helping them when their big – is an important task, and we must have all those support services in place to succeed. If our producer companies grow, we all win. Many people have good jobs. Our nonprofit and community organizations have lots of donors. And the city has enough tax revenue to provide the public safety, street paving, and other services everyone needs and wants.

So let’s work together to build Ventura’s prosperity for another generation!

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