“SLO lacks head-of-household jobs”
“Environment threatened by oil drilling off county coast”
“Local state parks closing likely”
“Local economy takes a dump; unemployment rises”
Those sound like today’s headlines, don’t they? But it was actually 1991 when the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce first became alarmed that the unique social, environmental, and economic factors that were the foundation of our city were threatened. Most people had taken those special qualities for granted, and had assumed they could never be diminished. After all, wasn’t it our God-given right to have unspoiled air and water, great educational and recreation opportunities, and a prosperous and vital business community?
In response to any challenge, chambers of commerce always form a new committee, and this was no exception. The new committee, called Economic Vision, was charged with looking 10 years ahead and developing a vision of an achievable future, then coming up with strategies to achieve it. The resulting booklet, published in 1992 after six months of meetings and many drafts, was a resounding success; it became the catalyst for many community discussions and helped form community consensus about what we wanted (such as the Performing Arts Center) and what we didn’t want (off-shore oil drilling.)
We soon realized that such a document needs updating periodically, so we set up a schedule of revisions every five years. Right now, we’re in the process of our fourth revision. We again assembled a small group of visionaries and gave them free reign to be creative. This latest assignment has turned out to be the most challenging revision of them all.
Not only are the current threats to our economy, environment, and way of life more ominous than any we faced before, we are positive there will be fundamental, structural changes in our national and local economy, as well as our state and local government. There will be consequent changes in how we work, play, and enjoy life in the future. We aren’t certain what any of those changes will be.
Since our last revision five years ago, there have been huge changes in the way we work and live. More people are working in non-traditional work places (at home, for instance) and more companies are structured in non-traditional ways, with employees in remote locations, or with management physically separated from most of their employees. San Luis Obispo’s relative isolation—both an asset and a liability in the past—seems to be much less of a factor now. A new generation of young workers is more mobile, doesn’t expect to stay with the same employer very long, and tends to blur the line between work and play. The Internet has changed almost every type of business, from retail to business services. How will these large societal and business trends blend with the leaner and more agile economy of the future?
Although the document is still being drafted, some strong themes have emerged. We will continue our progressive view of what constitutes a sustainable business community: True quality of life comes when the economy, environment, and social structure are healthy and in balance. We know that the foundation of San Luis Obispo’s economic prosperity is our quality of life; the unspoiled physical beauty and rich cultural life that makes residents want to stay here and tourists want to come here is essential to our prosperity. Ten years ago, in his book Rise of the Creative Class, author Richard Florida told the rest of the world what we already knew: Modern economic development should be based on developing an open and diverse community that can attract and keep “creative-class” employees and entrepreneurs. They are the people who will create the new businesses of the 21st Century.
In preparation for this latest revision, a team of 25 leaders from the chamber traveled to Boulder, Colo., about a year ago to see how that city has been able to use its strong environmental and outdoor recreation “brand” to strengthen the local economy. Several years ago, Boulder faced formidable economic challenges—job losses and departing companies. The Boulder Chamber, the City of Boulder and the University of Colorado formed an alliance to turn innovations developed at the university into small, high-tech business in Boulder. This alliance turned the economy around, created many jobs, and brought the business, environmental, and neighborhood organizations together.
Our Vision Committee is taking Boulder’s ideas a few steps further. In San Luis Obispo, the committee feels our city, the Chamber, and the university can combine the green business and sustainability innovations developed at Cal Poly with entrepreneurs and funding sources in the community. Cuesta can train the needed technologists. The result: new small businesses that are part of the green business revolution, new head-of-household “green-collar” jobs, and, eventually, San Luis Obispo becoming nationally recognized as a center of sustainability innovation.
Sound impossible? Watch for the final report from our Vision Committee (to be published this summer) that will include our strategies on how this can be achieved. The power of a shared vision is limitless..
David Garth is the president/CEO of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, a position he’s held for 36 years. Respond to his commentary via the editor at email@example.com.