Regional Innovations – San Luis Obispo: How to rally region’s leaders around strategic plan

150 150 Justin Ewers

San Luis Obispo organized a single, countywide analysis of its economy (Photo Credit: tkksummers)

It wasn’t the recession, the bursting of the housing bubble, or the struggles of any particular industry that brought San Luis Obispo leaders together in 2010 to create the area’s first-ever regional economic plan. On the contrary, says Michael Manchak, president and CEO of the region’s economic development group, the Economic Vitality Corporation. It was a much bigger issue.

“We needed to finally get our regional economy off autopilot,” says Manchak, “Until we started this project, like a lot of other places, we had no intentional economic strategy. We had our successes with different industries, but we’d never said as a region, ‘What does this mean, where are we going, and what do we need to get there?'”

Like many regions, San Luis Obispo County had spent years identifying its major industries like tourism and wine. Experts had crunched the data and made recommendations about how to create more jobs. “But we realized that wasn’t enough,” says Manchak. “That approach still didn’t cast a large enough net across the area to tell us what it means for sectors that aren’t the fastest-growing or the biggest.”

That’s when business leaders in San Luis Obispo decided to do something they’d never tried before: “We said, let’s pause on all these cluster studies and do one, single countywide analysis,” says Manchak. The Economic Vitality Corp followed this initial assessment with an unprecedented industry engagement effort: Over the course of 12 months, the San Luis Obispo Economic Strategy Project brought together more than 125 business leaders from every regional industry to provide input on how the region could act more strategically together to achieve their goals.

The result, as the California Stewardship Network highlights in a recent report, was San Luis Obispo’s first-ever regional economic plan. Since 2011, the project has brought the business community together with local governments in a unique partnership that has already produced a series of tangible successes—from streamlining the county’s permitting process to creating a new “Business Assistance Team” to shepherd high-priority regional projects more quickly through the system.

The California Economic Summit is working to scale up regional efforts like San Luis Obispo’s—joining together with dozens of organizations across the state to push the state government toward creating a similarly comprehensive 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 make businesses and public officials partners in economic development the way they’ve become in San Luis Obispo.

Putting down a legal foundation for growth

The first of the early wins achieved by the San Luis Obispo Economic Strategy Project certainly did just that—laying a foundation for economic growth by bringing business leaders and public officials together to refocus the county’s general plan on the business community’s new economic strategy. “Initially, some people said not to even try to get the project endorsed by the county and definitely not to bother trying to change the general plan, you’ll never get them to do that,” says Manchak. “For us, that wasn’t good enough.”

The last time general plan’s economic element had been revised was a dozen years ago earlier. The plan included a list of ninety economic objectives for the county, says Manchak: “But no one knew if any of them had ever been met, and no one was tracking them. It was a big, fat, dusty document.”

When the county’s five supervisors were shown a draft of the strategic plan, Manchak says they were impressed: “All five of them agreed it was a good thing; they liked its holistic, global look at the county economy. It clearly wasn’t self-serving for any particular industry leader.”

The board agreed to work with business leaders on syncing up the county’s general plan with the new strategy, an important step that would give the strategy a legal foundation in the region. Even better, the two documents reflect an unprecedented level of collaboration between the region’s public and private sector leaders.

“These documents are not written by the government,” says Manchak. “In the past, these things were done without enough input, where it’s sort of like government saying ‘Here’s your plan, business community, good luck to you.'”

The San Luis Obispo’s region more deliberate, inclusive approach certainly wasn’t easy—and it took time—but Manchak believes it has set the table for an array of successes the region has enjoyed since then.

“To say this is hard to do is the understatement of the year, it’s very hard. But we weren’t afraid to do it,” says Manchak. “It’s one thing for a business leader to be encouraged to go to local meetings and speak up. It’s quite another to have impact. And yet another to be involved in the strategy to make change. But once you have buy-in, you can accomplish a lot.”

Some other “early wins”

The California Stewardship Network report details several other early wins enjoyed by San Luis Obispo’s Economic Strategy Project:

Including economic impacts in evaluations of land-use or development projects: Rather than simply evaluating the impacts to the environment or public services, beneficial economic and community impacts needed to be considered in the decision-making process. Working with County Planning and Building Department staff, the Economic Vitality Corporation has developed a pilot project for project applicants to complete a voluntary online assessment that helps determine economic or community benefits by the proposed project. As a second tier of this program, the applicant may work with the Economic Vitality Corporation to complete an economic modeling scenario which estimates impacts to jobs, sales and earnings, increases to sales and property tax revenues, and other relative metrics.

Streamline permit process: Championed by County Supervisor Frank Mecham with representatives from the Building Design and Construction Cluster, the County of San Luis Obispo evaluated opportunities to streamline the Building and Land Use Permit process. As a result of these efforts, an implementation plan was brought forward by County Planning and Building Department staff, and was approved for implementation by the Board of Supervisors. These modifications achieved the goals and objectives identified by the cluster in the Economic Strategy document. Stakeholder groups that reconvened to evaluate this effort determined that additional progress was required on the Land Use Permitting focus and work in this area is currently ongoing.

Creating a new “Business Assistance Team:” As a result of discussions by both the Building Design and Construction and Green Energy clusters, stakeholders have been working with the County to explore the potential of establishing an expedited permit process…for discretionary projects that achieve regional priorities. The Business Assistance Team pilot project was launched in collaboration with County staff. Projects that are located within the urban reserve line and that provide high-quality jobs exceeding the County’s self-sufficiency standard may apply for Business Assistance Team participation. To ensure the program is sustainable, County staff took the extra step of reaching out to relevant agencies to gain consensus on efforts to shepherd such projects through the process. 


Justin Ewers

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