Hired last year by the county to help speed its slow recovery from recession, an economic consulting group Monday recommended that Ventura County government and business leaders revitalize the economy by promoting six of the region's healthiest industries.
Rather than focusing on attracting new companies to the county with cheap labor, land and capital, local and county officials should develop the industries they already have with innovative public-private alliances.
That means businesses working together to cut costs, regulatory agencies streamlining the process for manufacturing permits, and schools developing curricula to meet the skill demands of local industries.
"This is about networking, plain and simple," said James R. King, president of Applied Development Economics, the Sacramento-based consulting firm. In a $40,000 study, the firm named six industries as the focal point of the government-to-business and business-to-business relationships.
They are agriculture, communications, environmental technology, machinery, plastics and biomedical. Each industry was chosen because it is already strong, expanding with new players and outstripping state and national levels of job growth.
King's colleague, James O. Gollub of DRI/McGraw-Hill, explained the plan to a group of business and government leaders gathered for the report's unveiling.
"This is about a bunch of companies getting together and working with schools, the public utilities, the banking infrastructure, anyone who affects their business, to cause the economy to shape the way they want," he said. Gollub is a leading expert in "clustered" economies, a term that refers to alliances between firms and public agencies.
The idea of public-private cooperation is not entirely new to Ventura County. The Ventura County Council on Economic Vitality was formed in 1992 to promote cooperation between mayors and county supervisors. About 50 business leaders and others who attended Monday's meeting abounded with examples of how cooperation had helped their businesses.
Bob Michels, a manufacturing manager for 3M who attended the meeting, said working with a county regulatory agency sped the issuance of a permit to retool a production plant in Ventura County. The change allowed 3M, in a race with Japanese competitors, to bring a new computer file backup system to the market in less than three months.
Dan Block of Seaward International Group Inc. in Ventura spoke about the Pacific Agribusiness Alliance, a group of agricultural business interests that meets once a month to discuss solutions to common problems facing the industry. Since the group formed this year, members seeking investment capital for agricultural ventures have hooked up with bankers they met in the group, he said.
Although these alliances have already begun in some areas, business leaders said the county's official recognition of the six focus areas will make it easier for them to ask for help in the future.
"The idea of cooperating is not really new," Block said. "But putting it on paper is. You saw all the mayors being attentive and buying into this. We would not command that kind of attention strolling hat in hand into a city council meeting for help."
Government officials said the naming of the target groups will better allow them to focus on specific areas. Rosa Lee Measures, a Ventura councilwoman, said her city has already begun reaching out to local businesses. But the report, which emphasizes an integrated, countywide approach, would allow them to focus on key areas for the benefit of the whole county.
According to King, the six-cluster plan would benefit all communities in Ventura County, because the sectors represent the strengths of each region.
"What will not work," he said, "is if Oxnard decides it wants to become a technology center. We already have that in Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Simi Valley, so it would be counterproductive."
Leaders in the agricultural industry, chosen as a focus group for the meeting because they have already begun forming alliances with each other, told government representatives their industry faces several obstacles.
Pat Richards, an agricultural business development officer for Ventura County National Bank, said farmers need help from the government in boosting the public's acceptance of the industry.
"The new people who flow this way, they want to live in this beautiful area, but when they hear the pumps pumping at night, they want to file a lawsuit."