Mind the Gap

 For over a hundred years, Ventura County leaders have sought a rail line exiting the county through the Heritage Valley. In the early 1900′s, a railroad to enhance the export of the area citrus crop was proposed through the Sespe Creek watershed north to Maricopa. The plan relied on the use of county roads for the route which was ultimately denied.

 

The Ventura County Transportation Commission now owns the existing railroad through the valley and an easement extending to the LA County line. Through a lease with the commission, the Fillmore and Western Railway operates popular sightseeing trains on the line from Santa Paula to Piru.  Ventura County Supervisor Long and Santa Clarita Mayor Weste recently discussed a plan that would extend that line to Santa Clarita.

Connect the dots to draw a regional rail system

As the map above shows, reasonably completing a regional rail network involves building a line through Santa Clarita. Local opposition to such a plan is so strong, the City will only consider extending the Heritage Valley line to the city limits. The Trojan Horse will not be allowed inside the gates.

A Santa Clarita to Santa Paula line is expected enhance area tourism, drawing visitors down into the Heritage Valley and augmenting Santa Clarita as a tourist destination.

However fully connecting the Heritage Valley line to the existing railroad network is vital to Ventura County’s economy.  The single existing rail connection through the county is strained, forcing passenger and freight trains on the same track.  The Metrolink 111 disaster is a constant reminder of the risks of a crowded rail system.

Completing the Heritage Valley line should be a economic priority for the next 20 years.  Port Hueneme will need better connections to increase exports.  Ventura County will require a rail connection to the High Speed Rail System.   The use of the railroad to haul freight will decrease truck traffic in the valley.   A passenger line could bring visitors into Ventura. 

Unfortunately the railroad extension is not only issue where Ventura County’s economic interests clash with Santa Clarita’s suburbia.   The salt content of the Santa Clara River downstream of Santa Clarita has elevated to a level deemed too high for agriculture use.   As part of a deal with Ventura County farmers, Santa Clarita water users are required to fund a $210 million treatment plant to remove chloride from water discharged into the river.    A battle over the necessity of the costly project has erupted  pitting Santa Clarita taxpayers against Ventura County farmers. 

Hopefully a suitable solution to the water issue is found.  Economic growth of Ventura County will depend on a favorable relationship with Santa Clarita residents.

In Search of a Green Middle Ground

The author of the book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” made headlines recently when he declared global warming “one of the chief concerns facing the world today.”   Bjorn Lomborg is often viewed as a global warming “denier” so his statement was considered a reversal of his position by some. 

Lomborg gained notoriety for his innovative approach to analyzing the costs and benefits of various investments in solving world problems.   His analysis showed that one dollar spent on fighting malnutrition yields $20 in benefits.  Every dollar spent cutting carbon produces much less than a dollar of reduction in global warming damage.   As a result, cutting carbon was near the bottom of the list of investments. 

Seeking alternatives, in 2009 he convened a group to analyze potential solutions to climate change beyond reducing carbon emissions.   The group found that R&D expenditures in green energy technologies and geo-engineering were the most economically feasible in reducing climate change damage

Lomborg explains the difficulty of this rational approach:

The fact that I’ve always asserted the reality of man-made climate change never seemed to make an impression on my critics. What mattered was that I had the temerity to question two key tenets of the received wisdom about global warming: …the idea that we were facing the apocalypse, and …that the only solution was to mandate drastic cuts in carbon emissions.

That’s the way it is with heresy—there is no middle ground. Either you believe global warming is the worst problem mankind has ever faced and that cutting carbon is the only solution, or you are an antiscientific ignoramus who probably thinks the Earth is flat. 

His advice to those seeking a middle ground on climate change: “make green energy so cheap everyone wants it.”

Fuel cell installation at the 100% energy self-sufficient Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico.

One person who would agree is T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and chairman of SunPower Corp. in San Jose.  Using a combination of solar panels and fuel cells, his company is saving $75,000 a year in energy bills with the goal to be 100% energy self-sufficient by 2015.   Rodgers’ motivation is return on investment:

“I’m not into green for its own sake,” he explains. “I’m an engineer looking for solutions, and looking to do what’s best for shareholders. As an investor, I’m also an early adopter.”

 As an investor in green energy projects, Rodgers welcomes Federal subsidies but only for start up costs:

 “They allow alternative energy enterprises to ramp up. But they have to go away. These companies have to be economically independent.” 

The problem with Uncle Sam’s take on venture capitalism is its unwillingness to cut funding of flawed energy business models.  (Think ethanol subsidies.)  It is much easier to laud successful green investments than to unwind poor ones.   This investment inefficiency drives up the cost of green energy.

Supporters of Proposition 23 who believe a carbon tax is an inefficient means to transition to clean energy are often treated like Bjorn Lomborg.   Passing 23 will allow California to adopt his goal to lower clean energy costs through disciplined R&D investments and a streamlined project approval process.

Hopefully California will lead the way by finding the green middle ground in the global warming debate.

Top 5 green job killers

Opponents of Proposition 23 tout the California carbon emission law’s ability to generate green energy jobs in the future while admitting it will cost jobs in the process.
 
Some of California’s labor unions have joined the concern about the loss of these traditional energy sector jobs.  They do not see the loss of their members’ jobs as being offset by the long term gains from the clean energy industry that may emerge. Union rep James Kellog explains:

While the new “green” industries that opponents tout might headquarter in California to take advantage of AB32′s subsidies and artificially created markets, they’ll mostly build their plants and create their manufacturing jobs in places where labor is cheaper, taxes are lower and environmental regulations more realistic.

Most Californians share the desire to leave the state a cleaner place for our children.  How we reach that cleaner place is subject to debate.  When assessing the potential effect of laws like AB 32, one must consider the business climate in California that green energy will operate within.

While it is easy to believe that clean energy projects will just blossom all over the state, the reality is that that they will be subject to the same environmental scrutiny that a new oil refinery would endure.  

These are the top 5 “Green Tape” threats to clean energy:   

5. Birds – Wind energy technology is a promising way to harvest energy from abundant wind sources.  
Problem: Unfortunately, birds like to fly around the same blustery areas.  Since it was discovered that about a bird an hour dies in the Altamont Pass wind farm in northern California, new wind projects must not kill birds. Instead, the financial feasibility of these projects are killed.

4. Safety Regulations – The Nissan Leaf is an all-electric car which requires 24 hours to recharge on a typical residential voltage.  In order to reduce the charging period to 8 hours, owners must install a high voltage charging system which most city building codes do not allow in residential neighborhoods.
Problem: City officials around the country must now be convinced that all that high voltage around homes is not that dangerous. The bigger problem for Nissan is projecting sales for the car. As one car writer describes the gamble:

If he wins, Renault-Nissan wins huge. If he loses, Mr. Ghosn will go down in history as the biggest CEO goat since Tony Hayward

3. Wireless transmissions – The “Smart Grid” is the future in micro managing reductions in energy usage.  An essential part of the grid are the smart meters which constantly transmit data to power companies.
Problem: Unfounded fears of health issues related to the devices have slowed their rollout in California.  One problem region is around environmentally conscious San Francisco. 4,169 people complained about smart meters in the Bay Area versus 78 in the greater San Diego area during the same period

2. Fragile Desert Habitats – California’s large uninhabited desert expanses are prime locations for solar farms.
Problem: Many of the best solar project sites are home to delicate ecosystems that will be impacted by the construction of solar panels. Environmental groups forced Washington lawmakers to designate only limited portions of Federal desert for solar development. The recently approved Beacon Solar project won environmentalist support because it was located on private property next to existing electrical infrastructure and will use municipal water supplies, qualities most desert solar projects do not possess.

1. NIMBYs – New infrastructure must be constructed to connect remote renewable energy sources to city users.
Problem: Many Californians are supporters of clean energy until the infrastructure is built in their backyard. The state is littered with clean energy projects stalled or killed due to objections from local residents. Some have objected to the installation of unsightly solar panels in residential neighborhoods.  A related threat comes from BANANA’s (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).

Mr. Kellog frames the issue and his union’s support of Prop 23 in closing:

We need to do something about global warming. But we don’t need to kick California workers while they’re down to do it. With more than 2.2 million Californians out of work, we can’t afford AB32′s excessive costs, at least not now.

Part of those excessive costs is green energy’s questionable ability to generate enough long-term job growth in California to cover losses.

Thinking Outside the Books

The debate over the future of public libraries has made area news with the cities of Camarillo and Santa Clarita electing to withdraw from their respective county library systems.  Financial efficiency is the motive behind these moves as these cities believe they can provide better service with resident’s tax money.

Camarillo and Santa Clarita have a track record of providing excellent service to their residents.  While their county was cutting library service and closing branches, these cities built new libraries and maintained healthy balance sheets.  

Both cities are considering maximizing library efficiency by outsourcing operations to a private library management company.  Replacing unionized public employee jobs with private sector employment rarely occurs quietly.  In Santa Clarita, the issue was demogogued with claims of “putting a price on literacy”, “emphasizing profits over readers”, “privatizing public assets” and other various “evils” of profit making companies.  

Of course, city contracts with private firms to provide services are nothing new.  Santa Clarita’s public transit system is operated by a private firm.  The city still owns the busses and other assets of the system.  

The Future of Libraries

Ventura County’s library system has suffered from steep budget cuts which forced the unpopular closure of Ventura’s Wright Library.  In response to the diminished service in his city, Ventura city manager Rick Cole is rethinking the role of the public library.  In a recent blog post, he concludes:

As we navigate the current crisis in funding our existing Library system, it makes sense to keep one eye on the kind of libraries we want for the future.

In his post, Cole refers to a column written by Neil Pierce which presents examples of how libraries are serving larger swathes of their community by providing non-traditional library services.  This transition aligns with the DaVinci Institute’s vision outlined in a 2007 paper entitled “The Future of Libraries: Beginning the Great Transformation”.  The paper predicts “libraries will transition from a center of information to a center of culture”:

 A culture-based library is one that taps into the spirit of the community, assessing priorities and providing resources to support the things deemed most important. Modern day cultural centers include museums, theaters, parks, and educational institutions. The library of the future could include all of these, but individual communities will be charged with developing an overall strategy that reflects the identity and personality of its own constituency.

Libraries adopting this cultural approach maintain collections of seeds and garden tools, host local groups in meeting rooms, show films, exhibit local artists and provide podcast and video recording studios for their patrons.

In a previous post, I wrote about how coffeehouses can become business “hives” which are collaborative combinations of coffeehouse, business center, and start-up incubator space.   Some academic libraries have adopted a similar model.   Anthony Townsend writes about the success of NYU in revamping its library:

These spaces are buzzing around the clock, bringing together the three catalysts of creative, collaborative knowledge work – snacks and coffee, computers and networks, and deeply motivated men and women.

Since the majority of the country’s public libraries are operated by municipalities, local control of libraries is not a new concept.  What is new is the rethinking of how these facilities should be operated to better serve their communities.   County library systems burdened with large overhead costs are forced to provide a traditional “one size fits all” approach to service.  

Cities like Camarillo and Santa Clarita are leading the way in rethinking how libraries are built and operated and the services they provide to their communities.

Hot Ideas come from Cool Places

Which is the better business plan  for a coffeehouse: old school hangout or incubator for technology start-ups?

According to a recent LA Times article, there is an emerging trend among independent coffeehouses to eliminate wifi internet access to patrons.   These coffeehouses, like restaurants, want to turn seats over quicker during their busy dayparts.  Internet users tend to stay longer and thus displace other customers.   

Like most things coffee, the trend began in Seattle.  However, Victrola Coffee & Art took out their wifi as a means to restore a gathering place culture:

“the owners noticed that friends were no longer talking and strangers were no longer meeting.”  

Some coffeehouses believe reading anything digital ruins the community meeting place vibe.  So iPads and Kindles are banned while dead tree reading material is allowed.  

Other stores have embraced the emerging demand for places for business people to meet, surf the internet and yes, network.   Seattle Coffee Works takes a wider view of their customer interaction:

Co-owner Sebastian Simsch said the Internet is far from a buzz kill. It’s a business opportunity. Wi-Fi in coffeehouses helps people make connections in the broader world. They may not make friends with someone at the next table, but they check in with friends all over through e-mail or on popular Internet sites such as Facebook.

As the Times article notes, while insurer Lloyd’s of London was once housed in a coffeehouse so were beatniks Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.   So why do coffeehouses attract both commerce and art?  They are cool places.

The title for this post came from a presentation by Doug Henton, CEO of Collaborative Economics, to the Ventura Economic Summit in June.    His theory is that cities who foster lively and vibrant urban environments produce innovative and creative businesses.    

One of the exciting ideas that came out the creative economy breakout session was the development of a 24-hour “hive” space in downtown Ventura.    This public/private partnership would be a combination of coffeehouse, business center, and start-up incubator space.    This is smart economic development and I hope the concept is further developed.

The restaurant business is all about developing niches.  Coffeehouses could be a analog haven away from a world where everyone from McDonald’s to Sam’s Club is offering free wifi.   However I doubt many cities other than Seattle or San Francisco have enough latte drinkers that want to read poetry from a paper book and meet new people in a coffeehouse.  

Unfortunately the downfall to most these businesses is that demand for 5 buck coffees is based on disposable income which is in short supply these days.   The demand for cool places to meet, collaborate and hangout is recession proof.

Oxnard, “That City to the West”

Stan Daily, Camarillo’s Mayor Emeritus, avoids uttering the name “Oxnard” preferring the phrase “that city to the west” instead.   So I was amused how the consultant charged with rebranding Oxnard introduced his concept:

“Wouldn’t it be cool if you had the people in Ventura, Ojai, Simi Valley, Port Hueneme, Thousand Oaks come to Oxnard instead of the other way around,”

Nice omission of the city to your east.  I wonder if the plan is for people from Oxnard to continue to come to Camarillo instead of the other way around?  Or are there some people in Oxnard who refuse to say the name “Camarillo”?   

The most controversial element of the Seattle consulting firm’s proposal was the renaming of Oxnard to Oxnard Shores.   The new name, coupled with the nickname “The International City”, will be key components of Oxnard’s rebranding effort. 

quiz_head_citynickname

Jason English has a relevant quiz up on mentalfloss.com.   The quiz

tests your knowledge of city nicknames—some that bubbled up naturally over time, some that were concocted by public relations firms hired to boost a city’s image,”

So Oxnard won’t be the first city to take the advice of a PR firm.   Tacking on a geographical element to a city name also isn’t new: Simi and Agoura both did it when they incorporated as cities.     Steve Kinney, chairman of the board of directors for the Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau, reminds us that there are many other elements to the rebranding plan than just the longer name.

Hopefully the city’s focus will be mitigating its structural and locational flaws and not a new name and slogans.   Oxnard should monitor Benton Harbor, Michigan in the coming months.   Despite its nice waterfront name, the city has a reputation as an industrial wasteland.  Their rebranding plan revolves around a new $18 million golf course which opens next week.   Ironically the name of the new development is “Harbor Shores”.

Thanks to Mr. Daily and other city fathers, Camarillo did not become East Oxnard in the 60’s.  The cities haven’t liked each ever since.   In recent years, Oxnard sued Camarillo over the construction of its outlet mall and supported the very unpopular Camarillo prison proposal.   So, I doubt we’ll hear our Mayor Emeritus utter “Oxnard Shores” any time soon.

The Blueprint for Economic Recovery in Ventura County.

 

Howard Wall from the St Louis Fed speaking at the USCB Economic Forecast Project this morning.

 UCSB presented its annual Ventura County Economic Outlook this morning at the Padre Serra Center in Camarillo. Speakers included Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, representatives from Beacon Economics and Howard Wall from the St. Louis Fed.
The next Treasurer/Tax Collector will be facing a challenging environment of rising interest rates, potential municipal bond defaults and declining commercial property values. I believe understanding the state of our local economy is an important part of the office.
National, state and local economic and demographic issues were covered in the presentation. Our county suffered greater job loss than other areas of the country but fared better in the housing market than most. We also have a good manufacturing base exporting goods out of the country. Ventura County started losing jobs before other counties in the region so it will likely recover sooner but gradually.
The economic recovery in Ventura County will be affected by demographic shifts in the area. Growth in the Hispanic population and retirees must be considered when plotting the course for recovery. Age related businesses, healthcare and education will emerge as job creators.
A crucial component for our local economy is improving educational attainment, particularly among the emerging Hispanic population. We must do a better job of targeting our educational investment particularly at the community college level.
An educated workforce and stable housing market will provide the base for economic growth in manufacturing, exports and healthcare and the capital investment spending and job creation that will follow.

Best Place to Start a Small Business? Look for a Walmart.

When CNN released their top 50 places to launch a new business for 2009, my first reaction was that there were no cities west of the Rockies on the list.  No surprise to those who run small businesses on the west coast.  My eyebrows really lifted when I realized most of these cities have Walmarts, the supposed slayer of all small business.  Many of the cities on the list have more than one Walmart serving their town.  El Paso, TX, number 17 on the midsize city list, has 10.

Cities that fight a Walmart are just demonstrating their difficult climate to start and run a small business.   No surprise that California is full of these cities.   There still might be hope for Ventura.  We need to start creating jobs and stop protecting special interests.

Why a thriving Old Town is good for Camarillo

As a business owner in Camarillo Old Town, participating in the Chamber’s Old Town Association committee is an important priority in our business plan.   Although the benefits of a revitalized Old Town to businesses located here are obvious, the benefits to our community are often understated.    Since public/private partnerships are essential to revitalizing the Old Town district, it is important to note the benefits to Camarillo’s residents, government and its economy.

Unlike traditional shopping centers, businesses in Old Town are connected by public sidewalks and utilize public parking spaces.   Our city council recognized the need to redevelop the neglected district and funded a multi-phase project to upgrade the public property in the district.  The award winning project has improved and/or added sidewalks, planters, streetscape, signage and parking.    Many private property owners and their tenants have in turn upgraded facades and building interiors.

Revitalizing a commercial district requires more than upgrading physical improvements.   The redevelopment must include elements that create a sense of community, provide opportunities to socialize in a vibrant and safe environment and draw visitors to our area.   Our committee members assist in organizing special events for the neighborhood such as Fiesta, Art and Jazz Festival and our most recent event, Cruise Nights.

These events also require a public/private partnership to produce and could not happen without the support of the City, Chamber of Commerce, local businesses and property owners.   Our festivals and special events contribute to quality of life, giving neighbors a chance to celebrate community and create memories.  Confirming the “staycation” trend, a California/Nevada Festivals and Events Association survey shows 66% of organizers reporting increased attendance this year with some reporting record setting attendance.  A thriving downtown commercial district with a calendar full of special events and festivals is another marketing point to attract new businesses and residents as well as retain and recruit new employees.

 The City’s investment in Old Town is rewarded with additional property and sales tax and reduced pressure for sprawl development.   Festivals and special events augmented with our convenient car and train access also attract visitors from outside the area to Camarillo.   Increased visitor traffic and healthier economy benefit businesses outside the district.

The challenge in these tight economic times is funding these events.    Sponsorship and public money sources are shrinking.   The Old Town Association committee has been exploring various alternatives for funding events, marketing, security and physical improvements for the neighborhood.    The leading option is a forming Business Improvement District (BID) similar to those of downtown Oxnard and Ventura.   Property owners in these districts voted to impose a parcel tax dedicated to funding neighborhood needs.

The BIDs in our neighboring cities are further examples of the public/private partnership necessary to improve downtowns.   They are also well organized and funded competitors to downtown Camarillo.

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