Choosing Collaboration over Competition: Building a Regional Economy
For individuals and businesses, the region is the functional unit in which we live and operate. Many of us wake up in one city, work in another, and dine, shop and play in many. We regularly drive across city and county borders without a thought or a care. Our businesses serve marketplaces, both large and small, that depend upon suppliers, workers and customers who rarely reside in a single jurisdiction.
So, why don’t we work to nurture a regional economy instead of staying focused on one city?
From the decommissioning of Diablo Canyon to the housing crisis and the need locally for a qualified workforce, there are a variety of issues that our region is facing. Recognizing a need for collaboration, local chambers, higher education, business and government entities across the Central Coast are coming together to take a more regional approach to solving issues that affect all of us. The Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce recently held an event to discuss these efforts, and the importance of regionalism in solving larger economic issues.
Bob Linscheid, Senior Advisor for Economic Development at Cal Poly, began the conversation by discussing how the decommissioning of the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant lead to regional collaboration.
“We all know that we become much stronger as a unit than we are by ourselves. And that’s the moniker of regionalism, essentially,” Linscheid explained. “A number of us saw a need to come together – particularly around the issue of the closing of Diablo. We’ve developed an economic development committee which includes representation of the entire region from Vandenberg to Camp Roberts. It includes entities like higher education (Cuesta, Hancock College, Cal Poly), business and government (in particular cities and county).”
Linscheid says the collaborative approach is necessary because of the need for a common conversation around the economic vision for the region. “This need has always been there, but in many ways Diablo gave us a reason to finally really come together,” he said.
The conversations around Diablo have stemmed discussions about other regional issues, like the roles our higher education systems play in our local communities and how we can better collaborate and be part of the solution to a more vibrant regional economy.
Last year, several of those involved in the regional economic development conversation traveled to the Denver area. Melissa James, Director of Economic Initiatives and Regional Advocacy for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, talked about the trip and its impact on the committee.
“We chose to visit the Denver/Boulder area in particular because it was an area that was identified as similar to ours in terms of need,” she explained. “In the 1980’s their region’s industry collapsed and they decided as a region that they needed to come together and do something about it. While we don’t expect a calamity of that nature to happen, we already know about an issue coming within 7 years – the decommissioning of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant – and really wanted to use the trip as a case study to better understand how we can collaborate and get ahead of the problem.”
James said they went on the trip hoping to better understand how the Denver area used a regional approach to overcome their economic challenges and come out the other side the strong, thriving economy they are today.
“What our group really took away from the trip was an understanding of this shift that needs to be made from a culture of competition to a culture of collaboration,” James said. “We were inspired by what happened in the Denver/Boulder area to the point where we realized that we can come together and work in ways where we too can overcome the challenges affecting our communities – Diablo and otherwise.”
James explained that other issues affecting the region including housing and the pension crisis can be addressed through a regional approach. “I think we all began to see that, beyond Diablo, there’s a lot of things where approaching our shared challenges together could more easily lead us to shared prosperity.”
James says their regional economic development committee has begun working together simply by having conversations around shared issues.
“The question for our group has been how do we create a vibrant, working regional economy? How can we work together to accomplish goals that we aren’t right now?”, James explained. “And for us, that means talking with each other, building trust with each other, and then eventually planning together to figure out how can we start doing things that we weren’t doing before.”
James and Linscheid both agreed that an inclusive approach has been critical in their efforts to solve regional problems. Their group is inviting everyone shift perspectives to one where communities start looking at the region as a whole and building conversations with one another about how we can achieve more together and reach higher goals.
“What I try to do on behalf of Cal Poly is bring people to the table who have not participated before and show them how their participation provides a better perspective for everyone when it comes to solving these larger issues,” Linscheid explained. “Its all about inclusion. If you don’t feel included in the conversation, then the results of the conversation don’t matter to you and you don’t feel like its relevant to you. So, we try and open up the opportunity for participation. We’ve seen, while trying to work together, that we do have differences in our communities across the region but it is our differences that make us stronger.”
The Chamber-hosted event on regionalism was just one example of how the regional economic development committee is taking an inclusive approach to solving the issues that affect all of our communities.
“Collaborating regionally is the key to nurturing a more effective and balanced economy,” explained Glenn Morris, President/CEO for the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Strategic collaboration gets beyond individual jurisdictions, allowing multiple communities to effectively leverage their collective assets, overcome individual shortcomings, and achieve economic growth in ways not possible by acting alone or at cross purposes. By coming together in groups like the regional economic development committee, by holding events like this one where we open the conversation to our business leadership, we really feel this regional approach will ultimately benefit all of us along the Central Coast.”