Regional innovations – Redwood Coast: How to build an economic blueprint across a region

150 150 Justin Ewers

(Photo Credit: Danielle Martin)

Getting leaders from different sectors to work together is hard. Getting them to work together in the sprawling redwood north of California–a region as big as Connecticut and New Jersey combined, dominated by mountain ranges and hundreds of miles of forests, where going from one end of a county to another can take hours–well, that’s even harder.

But over the last several months, leaders in Humboldt County–one of four counties, including Del Norte, Trinity, and Mendocino, that make up this 11,000 square-mile region–have taken an important step toward aligning the Redwood region behind a comprehensive economic development plan. After 15 months of consultations with stakeholders across the county, Humboldt County leaders successfully updated their county’s decade-old economic strategy in March, producing a new five-year blueprint, “Prosperity 2012,” aimed at boosting the county’s major industries.

Humboldt’s unprecedented outreach process, which was featured in a recent California Stewardship Network report, may also provide a template the rest of the region can use to drive sustainable development across the Redwood Coast.

The California Economic Summit is working to scale up regional efforts like Humboldt’s–joining together with dozens of organizations across the state to push the state’s government to create a similarly inclusive economic plan for California. After last year’s successful Summit, regional leaders identified a shared agenda that will help California create jobs, stay competitive, and bring community members and public officials together as economic development partners the way they have in Humboldt.

Now comes the hard part

When the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved the Humboldt plan in March, they praised regional leaders for working together to seek out input on how to grow the county from more some 450 community members across the business, non-profit, and education sectors.

The county’s strategy was built from the grassroots up by more than a dozen community action teams created to look into different growth ideas (from aquaculture innovation to expanding the region’s rail options). These teams created action plans and identified community champions to lead implementation. A Leadership Council was also formed to evaluate these community ideas and draw them together into the strategy approved by the county in March.

Now comes the hard part, says Kathy Moxon director of Redwood Coast Rural Action, a group founded a decade ago to bring together leaders from across the region to develop a targeted agenda for expanding the region’s economy.

“In our region, Humboldt is really the powerhouse of the economy, and we’ve done a lot of heavy lifting here to do this right,” says Moxon. “But the desire was not only to get [the plan] approved by the Board of Supervisors, but also by other jurisdictions so there’s a tacit agreement to execute down the same pathway.”

This effort, Moxon says, will build on the relationships developed through a multi-year collaboration called “Targets of Opportunity”—a regional effort to identify six fast-growing industries, from health care and specialty foods to building and systems construction, all four counties in the region can support. As the Economic Summit reported in October, these new economy jobs have already begun driving up salaries and changing the face of the region. The rural north has seen 37 percent job growth in its six “target” industries, compared to a 4 percent rate of growth for the rest of the region’s economy.

When one benefits, all benefit

Maintaining that success—and coordinating efforts to build on it—is the Redwood Coast’s next task. Moxon’s travels across the region have helped regional leaders identify several other areas Redwood counties can begin to work together to better coordinate their economic development efforts. From the CSN report:

  • RCRA discovered that several counties were focusing on growing their meat processing industries. However, given the scale of that industry, the region could better compete nationally by collaborating rather that working separately. For example, creating regional processing facilities could create economies of scale, lowering costs for businesses.
  • RCRA also identified community colleges as a potential area for collaboration. Humboldt County, for example, is working with its community colleges to train its workforce. Given that each county has a community college, there could be opportunities to share curriculum and training the local workforce to meet regional market needs across counties.
  • Humboldt County has implemented a local ordinance that gives local vendors preferential points in response to a request for proposals. This preference supports local businesses and keeps money in the County. RCRA recognized this policy as one that could work across all regions or that other counties could implement to support local or regional companies.
  • Mendocino and Humboldt Counties are learning together about mobilizing local capital for local needs and are ready to engage in policy improvement efforts identified by the Smart Capital Action Team at the first California Economic Summit.

The key to the next phase of the region’s growth, says Moxon, will be finding the right process–and the right champions–to drive it. “There’s no doubt all counties benefit when one county is improving,” says Moxon. “One of the beautiful things I thought Humboldt did well was engaging the community so there were many more people ready to help implement this new strategy,” she says.

“That’s an idea I’d like to take to Del Norte or Mendocino. This is something we learned, and it works. Maybe they’ll ask us how we did it, maybe they’ll run with it in a way that works for their community. Either way, it’s a success.”

There more to be done on the Redwood coast, but regional leaders are starting to put together a plan—and a process—for getting there.


Justin Ewers

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