Sunday, February 25, 2007

Realizing our economic potential in Solano County

Realizing our economic potential
By Michael Reagan
Article Launched:02/25/2007 07:29:50 AM PST
The face of Solano County has changed. We have gone from being seen as the edge of the Bay and Sacramento areas to being viewed as the center of an internationally recognized economic region - a powerhouse stretching from Monterey to Reno.

This new portrait was painted at last week's Solano Economic Summit, which elicited an impressive array of ideas and suggestions about areas to focus on. The upbeat event had a clear, unifying theme: Solano County as a place where all families can thrive and where our communities are interdependent for economic success.

The discussions affirmed that some actions already in the works are well aligned with our collective vision for Solano County. At the same time, the summit brought to light that we - the seven cities and the county - need to overcome our distinct economic (di)visions and make a serious commitment to our collective economic vitality.

Some of the key topics discussed were:

• Marketing: Every business will tell you that marketing is crucial to their very existence. Communities are no different. The message from the summit is that we collectively need to be better sales reps. For example, we need to capture our talented graduates here at home instead of acquiescing; they're first looking for jobs elsewhere. We need to work on our image, and I challenge public relations professionals in the public and private sectors to develop a strategy that promotes what makes Solano County special. This will also take a partnership with our local media outlets too.

• Workforce development: The conversations at the summit have already re-energized relationships between the County Office of Education, our unified school districts, Solano Community College and our four-year universities. Their task is to devise an education program that aligns the entire spectrum of the student population with future employment requirements - as well as provides life-long learning and retraining opportunities.

We had to remind attendees that we have two universities with four-year campuses in this county - Touro University on Mare Island and the California Maritime Academy (a California State University campus) in Vallejo - that supplement our community college and other universities with smaller footprints here. We should sell these incredible assets.

• Business retention, recruitment and incubation. This statistic hits home: 77 percent of all employers in Solano County have 10 or fewer employees. Improving the ability of these small businesses to hire one additional employee would bring in more new jobs than another Valero, Alza or Genentech. Focusing on smaller businesses also will attract more big companies, too. Our expert panelists advised us to build on the existing clusters of biotechnology and food processing, while growing new clusters, such as logistics or green energy. We can do this by taking government out of business' way with a countywide, streamlined permitting process.

In the works are several efforts to assist in economic development. The county has three studies under way to discover how agriculture can survive as an industry. Smaller communities are joining forces with the county to obtain community development block grants for economic development. The county and some of the cities are exploring ways to obtain or produce inexpensive energy as a job creation enticement. The Solano County Water Agency is studying the underground aquifer that serves much of Northern Solano County to understand what kind of water users we can sustain and where.

The summit also echoed something I have called for. We need to analyze our commuter workforce so existing and potential employers know the skills and value of the labor pool we hemorrhage to surrounding counties. I will champion the funding of that study during county budget hearings in June.

• Collaborative planning and leadership: The revitalization of the County-City Coordinating Council is an example of the public sector working together to resolve issues of mutual interest. The summit, however, also brought forward the idea that the private sector needs a unifying public policy voice to work effectively with local, regional and state agencies. That's a challenge we need to step up to.

• Community services and facilities: Summit attendees consistently emphasized that our amenities - parks, family attractions, arts, cultural events, education, city services, medical services, etc. - play an essential part in attracting companies that bring in quality jobs and innovative people who will shape our future communities.

• Land-use planning and infrastructure: There was an overwhelming consensus that the county's new general plan should address all of our future needs, from fostering a dynamic quality of life in distinct urban centers to ensuring our transportation infrastructure meets our need to attract quality jobs. The plan also should reflect the limited growth expectations of some of our cities. Summit attendees dared to imagine how enticing this county might be to potential employers if we removed the "unknown" from our planning processes. Our next step should be for the economic development community to profile our cities' intentions to meet future employment requirements and define any gaps that might be appropriate for the unincorporated area to fill. We should do this immediately to ensure we remain on track to adopt the general plan in November 2008.

These are the key initiatives and issues raised at the Economic Summit. I can promise that this supervisor - and I believe a solid majority of our supervisors, mayors, council members and other elected officials - are committed to ensuring a vibrant economy throughout the county. The next big step is to obtain a commitment from small groups of business and community members to sort through what we learned and bring back tactical plans when we regroup (now planned for June 19) to map our vision.

• The author is chairman of the Solano County Board of Supervisors, where he represents District 5.

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