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March 7, 2014
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Focused economic development plan would be welcomed with arms wide open

Nevada County Economic Resource Council board members — who unanimously approved the organization’s business plan presented by its new director Thursday — certainly won’t be alone in welcoming a strategy for local economic development with open arms.

Newly hired ERC Director Jon Gregory outlined the organization’s goal in the document as follows:

“Through a combination of initiatives and activities designed to encourage existing business growth that position the organization as the hub of economic development, the ERC will work to establish a positive operating environment for entrepreneurial start-ups and existing Nevada County businesses, and as a new location for businesses that possess shared alignment with Nevada County’s attributes.

“Simply put,” Gregory wrote, “the ERC goal is to grow the county’s economic pie.”

While that has long been the goal for the Economic Resource Council, some have wondered whether it actually serves as the community’s leader in economic development efforts — including a member of the organization’s own executive committee. When California Association for Local Economic Development’s President and CEO Gurbax Sahota asked the leaders during an October round table if all of Nevada County’s leaders and stakeholders were “solidly” behind the ERC, a chorus of “No” was echoed around the room at Grass Valley City Hall.

“I am not totally convinced,” said Nevada County Supervisor Ed Scofield, who also sits on the ERC executive board. “If we were really the leaders, we would have the membership much stronger than it is.”

Recent turnover at the top, though downplayed by some members of the ERC’s executive committee, also appears to have taken a toll on the organization’s ability to lead local economic development efforts. A June 24, 2013, staff report from Nevada County indicated that that is the case, describing the ERC’s effort to enhance tourism on behalf of the county as “suffering a number of setbacks resulting in ERC having four executive directors over the last two years.”

“The past changes in leadership at the helm were unforeseen, disrupted progress and created some inconsistency in the work flow,” stated the report, authored by analyst Eve Diamond.

From 1996 to 2005, the ERC had one executive director in Larry Burkhardt. Since Burkhardt resigned to move to Colorado after his nine years with the ERC, the organization has been led by six executive directors in a nine-year span, with Chuck Neeley (2005-07), Gil Mathew (2007-2010), Ron Moser (Jan. 2011-Jan. 2012), Jon Blinder (Jan. 2012-Sept. 2012), Robert Trent (Feb. 2013-Sept. 2013) and now Gregory serving as the ERC leader.

Gregory arrived earlier this year after co-founding Innovate North State in May 2012 to act as a partnership between public and private entities driven by CEOs of leading North State businesses. The regional organization, which has a mission similar to that of the ERC, was founded to create jobs in the northern region of the state by focusing resources on helping innovative growth companies succeed.

In the executive summary of the business plan presented to the ERC board Thursday, Gregory said, “the ERC will launch and sustain 3 key initiatives — with a laser-like focus on businesses that sell products or services on a statewide, national or global scale — and will not be ‘all things to all people’.”

But juggling the new initiatives, which seem to be somewhat of a return to the roots of the ERC’s original purpose, might require a bit of a balancing act as the organization also remains responsible for Nevada County’s $240,000 tourism enhancement contract.

The ERC plans to identify five high-potential county businesses each year and provide each one with up to 200 hours of volunteer expertise, support the board believes will foster job creation and retention. The plan also proposes to convince growth-oriented businesses to move their companies to Nevada County. The final initiative aims to find 10 businesses outside Nevada County and have them vie each year for a prize — a combination of cash and services if they relocate to Nevada County.

But there are hurdles in the path to pulling off that plan, as Gregory outlined a lack of pervasive high-speed Internet service, an underdeveloped skilled and technical work force, lack of available land, lack of spousal employment opportunities and an underdevelopment of entrepreneurial programs as potential pitfalls.

There’s no doubt that the first “impediment” identified by Gregory in the ERC plan — the need for high-speed Internet — remains the highest hurdle for the community to clear to provide an environment that will attract companies that can help build an industry that will support high-paying jobs. We are hopeful that the ERC will join local elected officials and key stakeholders in the community to find solutions to that most pressing problem.

We also are hopeful that the ERC can find stability at the top of the organization, offering ample opportunity to bring such outlined strategies to light that not only benefit the bottom line for the local economy, but also the quality of life in Nevada County.

“It’s always been the strategy at the ERC to target our quality of life here because that’s what will really make the difference for a CEO who wants to perhaps be in an environment that has mountain biking, that is close to skiing and that is still near a metropolitan airport,” ERC Chair and Grass Valley City Council member Lisa Swarthout said this week. “But we still have that small-town rural quality that sometimes people look for. That’s something that sets us aside from other counties.”

News of a conceptual plan for a large shopping center proposed for the Dorsey Drive Interchange just weeks ago sparked a strong reaction over the impact on the area’s aesthetics and on local businesses, making it clear that it’s time for a community conversation on the future direction of western Nevada County.

We are encouraged to see the ERC put forth a plan this week focused on economic development strategies and are hopeful the organization can once again play a leadership role in such a discussion.

Our View represents the opinions of The Union Editorial Board, which is comprised of members of The Union staff, as well as informed members of the community.


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The Union Updated Mar 8, 2014 01:42PM Published Mar 10, 2014 06:27PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.