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COMMENTARY ON ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT : Centralized Resources Essential to Attract, Retain Businesses : ‘One-stop shop’ would enable the county to better compete in the state, national and international arena.

<i> H. Fred Mickelson is the Orange County regional vice president for Southern California Edison Co. and the current chairman of the board for the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and Industry</i>

An attempt to establish a full-blown economic development program in Orange County is not new. There have been at least two abortive attempts in the last 10 or 15 years. The vision to establish such a program was and is still right on the mark; the problem has been to achieve critical mass.

Up to a couple of years ago, it was the best of times. Sure, businesses and jobs were leaving Orange County, but there were two or three other companies lined up to fill the vacated space. Orange County was the land of milk and honey. And it seemed the good times would last forever--we put ourselves on cruise control. We enjoyed rubbing our backs in the fur-lined rut of complacency.

Well, we had a good run, but our decades-long growth was built on a narrow premise--many people didn’t like the deterioration they saw where they lived and worked, especially around Los Angeles, so they moved. And a lot of them came to Orange County--to live and to do business. So the growth was driven in some major part by developers responding to demand built on flight from unwanted circumstances, rather than a broad-based, deep-rooted growth built on the generations of investment experienced in many other parts of the country.

Suddenly, a couple of years ago, realization struck home. More businesses were relocating and growing elsewhere, and the waiting line of replacements had long since dried up. We were losing jobs, and few of us didn’t have a relative or close friend who was suddenly unemployed or a son or daughter just entering the work force who had to move out of state to find employment.

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What went wrong? An unusual combination of events compounded the pressure on our besieged business climate: the changeover to a peacetime economy; government regulation of financing; a series of natural disasters; a depressed economy worldwide; and, as a result of all this, a lack of consumer confidence.

And, as a final straw, we woke up to the fact that poachers from many countries, states, counties and even cities were skulking about in Orange County, taking aim on our businesses and many times bringing home world-class trophies. We were so out of touch with our business community that there were many cases where we didn’t know a business was considering relocating until it was already gone and the parking lot was permanently empty.

Well, much has been written and discussed these past two years about Orange County coming of age in the economic development arena. And much has been discussed and cussed about the hurdles facing business in Orange County and, for that matter, California. There’s the AQMD and regulation in general; there’s the number of and the time required to obtain permits; there are workers’ compensation issues; there are tax incentives and tax credits (or rather the lack of same when compared with our competitors) and a myriad of other valid issues.

It’s not my point to rehash the obvious. (But we must keep working on them till resolved, to be sure.) Rather, let’s focus on what has been accomplished as a foundation for what actions will achieve critical mass and will allow Orange County to join the likes of Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and the rest of the hunters in a solid, job-creating, tax revenue-generating, crime-reducing economic development effort.

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So what are our foundational achievements these past two years?

* The Orange County Economic Development Consortium, under the auspices of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and Industry and working in partnership with utilities and local chambers of commerce and local, county and state public agencies, has substantially reduced the hemorrhaging of business relocation with its business retention programs and actions;

* More than 20 businesses considering relocation--and the 5,100 jobs they represent--were retained in the last year alone;

* Partnership 2010 has strategically focused our thinking about what industry clusters we should target as Orange County matures;

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* The Orange County Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Industrial League of Orange County and the Building Industry Assn. have worked together to help achieve legislative change to develop a more favorable business climate.

All these efforts must continue and expand on all fronts.

But with all that said, there is one key series of actions that will jump-start our Orange County business economy and allow us to compete in the state, national and international economic development arena. And it won’t require a group of mental gymnasts creating from ground zero, because these actions have been successfully taken in varying measure by almost every other state in the country.

First, we must get out of the denial stage and recognize that the last several years’ downturn in the business health of Orange County is not just a cycle and that it won’t get better all by itself. Then we must go on the offensive and, through a public-private partnership, form a professional, hard-hitting, single-point-of-contact, centrally located economic development operation that is well-funded, professionally staffed and led by volunteers.

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It’s vital that our existing businesses are able to call one number or visit one location to obtain needed information and/or enlist the aid of experienced professionals in solving key business issues. And our existing businesses who wish to grow or businesses who are considering locating in Orange County should have information regarding the resources of the entire county at their fingertips at this “one-stop shop.”

Let’s serve notice that stealing businesses and jobs from Orange County is no longer like knocking over ducks in a shooting gallery, that we know many other areas want to become what Orange County already is and that we’re ready to go to war to retain, grow and attract new business.

Let’s focus our efforts through a countywide economic development organization that advocates and achieves the changes required to once again make Orange County a great place to live and do business.


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