A $1.5-million federal grant that one community college district rejected is about to be scooped up by another Orange County district to encourage the development of new businesses.
The grant from the U.S. Commerce Department will help the Rancho Santiago Community College District build a business incubator for digital-imaging companies. It probably will be built in Orange at Santiago Canyon College, one of the two main campuses in the district, the other being Santa Ana College.
Paul Garza, Rancho’s director of economic development, said he hopes the incubator can bring high-tech businesses to a portion of the county that has had trouble attracting them.
“You don’t see them in Santa Ana or Orange or Anaheim,” Garza said. “There’s no fundamental reason for that. We just need to work harder to attract those businesses to the central part of the county. We think this incubator can help.”
The grant originally was headed to the South Orange County Community College District as part of an ambitious high-tech project. Then the district did the unthinkable: It said it didn’t want the funds.
“I’ve never had a client give back money,” said Jill Dominguez of the WRJ Group in Fountain Valley, which has been the consultant on the incubator for both districts. “I think it’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened.”
Under South Orange County, the incubator would have operated together with a digital learning center planned for a helicopter hangar at the former Tustin Marine base.
But in the last few months, district trustees scotched both projects and turned down $2.5 million in grants.
First the trustees voted to stop pursuing money for the incubator, which they were all but guaranteed of getting. Then they told the state to keep the second half of a $2-million grant to develop the digital learning center.
Land Dispute Prompts Refusal of Grant
South Orange County said it couldn’t take the remainder of the grant because the district didn’t know when the Tustin land would become available. The division of land at the base has been tied up by lawsuits and the state Legislature.
State officials, however, said the grant could easily have been modified to place the center elsewhere.
At the February meeting where the board backed off the incubator, trustee Tom Fuentes said he opposed mixing government and business, according to those who were there.
Fuentes referred a call to a district spokeswoman, who referred the call to board President Nancy Padberg.
“I can tell you he’s very unsupportive of incubators, and so am I,” Padberg said. “You’re helping someone start up a new business. What is the role of government there? The person doing that has no responsibility. The government is giving them a free ride.”
Padberg said incubators also can cost the district money.
After South Orange County said no to the grant, Dominguez approached the North Orange County Community College District about applying for the grant. The district passed, saying the project was too big.
Dominguez then took the idea to Rancho Santiago.
“Rancho really wanted to do this project,” she said. “They have economic development in their philosophy. They totally got it.”
Besides offering traditional academic fare, community colleges also provide classes for people needing additional training to advance in their jobs or for people trying to change careers.
One role of community colleges, said John Didion, the Rancho Santiago district’s vice chancellor for human resources, is to create jobs. The district already has a California Mexico Trade Assistance Center, Small Business Development Center and Center for International Trade Development.
According to its Web site, “From workplace learning to resources for conducting business across borders, the college district is a premier partner in economic success.”
Centers Serve as Temporary Quarters
Wilfred Marshall of the Economic Development Administration office in Southern California said his agency gives most of its grants to cities and counties, not school districts.
The idea behind an incubator is that it will provide a place where nascent businesses are given space and facilities to grow until they can move out on their own.
In this case, the community college district must match the $1.5-million grant with its own funds, but that is easily met by the value of the campus land and buildings devoted to the project and salaries of those involved.
The Rancho Santiago district serves Anaheim Hills, Garden Grove, Orange, Santa Ana and Villa Park. The incubator will bring together start-up businesses concentrating on digital imaging, working with photos, video and film through computer manipulation, rather than film and tape.
The district expects to take at least a year to get the incubator up and running.
Besides the economic benefits, the incubator also is expected to be a plus for academics.
“The money should allow us to get some fairly high-level technology we don’t have, and then the experience with this should point us in directions that should help lead us in instructional areas that we’re not real strong in that we know are important,” Garza said.