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Group Gets Down to Business : Jobs: Economic Development Assn.'s clout grows as revitalization program makes headway. County backs its clean-air plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of working as an obscure organization known predominantly to business and industry, the Ventura County Economic Development Assn. is finding new clout in the community.

During the booming economy of the 1980s, the association, made up of ranchers and business leaders, had no pressing issues on their agenda in the county.

Now, during the lingering recession, the group has taken an increasingly active role in revitalizing the local economy--a move that leaders hope will save jobs and bring new business to the county.

Their role was evident last week when the association, working with a county-appointed panel and local pollution regulators, won the Board of Supervisors’ approval for a clean-air plan that would replace parts of a federal proposal considered too harsh on business.

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The spirit of cooperation that developed between the private sector and county regulators has laid the foundation for the association’s ambitious goals for the coming year, said Carolyn Leavens, the group’s newly elected president.

Those goals include attracting firms to the county by creating a more business-friendly environment, streamlining county regulations to allow “one-stop shopping” for new and expanding businesses and developing an economic profile of the county to entice new companies that may consider relocating.

The association will continue its work on the air-quality plan as well as an educational program to help teach high school seniors who don’t want to go to college how to prepare for the work force. It will also take an active role in working for a regional airport and against military base closures.

But the organization has one overriding goal, Leavens said.

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“We’ve got to stop the job drain in Ventura County,” said the president, whose family citrus-and-avocado business is one of the largest in the county. “We’ve got to have regulators working with the private sector to give business a leg up. We’re world marketers, and we have to be competitive.”

The county has lost 12,000 jobs in the past five years, and it faces the possibility of further losses if either of the U.S. Navy bases at Point Mugu or Port Hueneme cuts back or closes, association officials said.

Robert Sears, a consultant for the Environmental Coalition and the Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, praised the group’s efforts to protect the local economy, but he said the association’s alternative clean-air proposal will not cut pollution enough to meet federal health standards.

In fact, he said, it’s questionable whether the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own plan is tough enough to meet those standards. By federal court order, the EPA must have a plan to reduce pollution enough to meet the standards.

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“The VCEDA alternative plan, which is less stringent than the EPA plan, will leave us even further from attainment (of the standards),” Sears said. “The effect of the VCEDA plan has not been tested.”

Whatever final plan the EPA adopts in February, County Supervisor Maggie Kildee said, it must have input from all sectors of the community to succeed. That cooperation must continue in the future to keep the economy healthy, she said.

“It takes government working with business to make sure that government is as receptive as we can be,” Kildee said. “With the economy turning down, everyone has been focusing more on business.”

The group began as the county-funded Ventura County Chamber of Commerce in 1949, said Nancy Williams, one of the association’s two paid staff members. Its name was changed to the Ventura County Economic Development Assn. in 1959. Funding from the county continued until 1972, when directors opted for more independence.

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The organization relies on a cadre of about 200 volunteers, including its 30-member board of directors, to carry out most of its projects. Membership dues, which range from $150 to $1,000 depending on the size of the company, account for most of the $200,000 annual budget.

Two fund-raisers and an annual economic outlook conference make up the difference most years.

During the boom years in California and the county, the association’s task was simple, said 18-year board member Oras Racicot, regional affairs manager for Southern California Edison.

“For a long time, the economy wasn’t an issue here,” he said. “We would just go along and get increases (in funding) every year. But when the economy went sour and we saw jobs leaving the community, things changed.”

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Directors formed what they called the Red Team last spring to try to lure a new Mercedes-Benz plant.

“We went in knowing the chances were remote,” Racicot said, and the plan was unsuccessful. “But it brought together a nice coalition of people interested in the Ventura County economy.”

Then, last February, when the EPA released its proposed Federal Implementation Plan to clean up the county’s air, the association realized that it held tremendous implications for business, he said.

The federal plan, developed under court order, would force annual emissions reductions from industry. But some companies that already have cut back on emissions as much as technology allows would be forced to cut back production to meet those requirements, business representatives and regulators say.

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“We were at the point where stationary sources of emissions couldn’t be squeezed any more because we would lose productivity if the (federal plan) was imposed,” he said. “This really brought VCEDA together and gave us a focus,” he said.

Bill Mount, deputy director of the Air Pollution Control District, has praised the association and the Council on Economic Vitality for their work to develop an alternative clean-air plan.

“It would have been devastating to industry,” said Mount, whose staff provided technical assistance to the two groups in developing their plan.

The association will continue to work with the air-pollution district to develop new regulations and will lobby the state to adopt a strict new smog-check program that would reduce emissions from motor vehicles.

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The association also plans to lobby the state Legislature to enact a law that would charge motorists an annual fee based on how much they drive and how much their cars pollute.

But association directors also see more issues on the horizon.

Proposed county traffic fees to improve roads are an example of a new rule that could prove very unfavorable for business, said Richard Spencer, executive vice president of Martin V. Smith & Associates and a new association board member.

“The cities already have traffic mitigation fees in place, and these county fees will not replace those,” he said. “They will be stacked on top.”

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He said the answer is to attract enough jobs to the county so that the fees aren’t necessary.

“If we had enough businesses here producing things, and if there were enough taxes from people working flowing into county government as there used to be, we would not need traffic mitigation fees,” he said.

But until then, Kildee said, some fees are necessary.

“I don’t think the Board of Supervisors will say: ‘You don’t like the fees, so you don’t have to have them,’ ” she said. “But I don’t think the board will just say: ‘That’s tough,’ either. I think there will be a compromise so that everybody will get a little bit and nobody will be totally hurt.”

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Leavens said the details have yet to be worked out for how the new spirit of cooperation will translate into a friendlier environment.

“But,” she said, “it will have to be an alliance.”


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