Tuolumne County’s Economic Development Authority director landed in Sonora last year in the thick of the nation’s most spectacular economic collapse since the Great Depression.
Locally, Mervyns and Gottschalks had closed. Sierra Pacific Industries was in the process of shuttering its saw mill in Standard.
The rolls of the unemployed were rising rapidly.
Times are still tough, to be certain. Unemployment hangs above 14 percent.
But what a difference a year can make.
Larry Cope, 40, whose one-year anniversary with the EDA comes in April, recently reflected on what has been accomplished and what needs to be done.
As director, Cope works to retain and expand businesses within Tuolumne County. However, the majority of his efforts center on bringing in new businesses to foster economic development activities in the area.
Positive developments since April 2009 include the EDA’s assistance in helping Sonora’s MRL Industries expand its production operations, which could bring 150 family-wage manufacturing and engineering jobs to Tuolumne County in the next five to seven years; and helping facilitate the planned opening of a Kohl’s store in The Junction shopping center, formerly home to Gottschalks.
A bevy of smaller efforts have also come to fruition or are in the works.
A energetic but plain spoken Kansan, Cope is quick to deflect credit for several major achievements on the economic front in Tuolumne County.
“I’m not the guy who likes to be there at the ribbon-cutting,” Cope said. “I like to get one project through and then work on the next one.”
But those who work with him are quick to send at least some of the credit back.
“I’ll say without hesitation that Larry has been a bright light for city and county,” said Greg Applegate, Sonora’s city administrator.
The TCEDA was formed by the city and county to improve the region’s economic outlook. The new entity, which incorporated and replaced the former Economic Development Company and Economic Prosperity Company, supports and facilitates economic development in the county.
“It’s critical,” said Tuolumne County Chief Administrative Officer Craig Pedro. “It’s one of the most important things that the (Board of Supervisors) and (Sonora City Council) have done over the past many years.”
The organization is roundly praised for its visible successes. But it’s the behind-the-scenes work on the part of Cope and the TCEDA board that makes the difference.
The circumstances under which Cope, the former executive director of the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation in Gilroy, took over at the TCEDA were hardly rosy.
A month passed between the date that Cope signed his contract with the TCEDA and the day he began work. In that month, the developments with Mervyns, Gottschalks and SPI occurred.
Cope interviewed for the position before a panel city, county and business representatives.
He presented a plan for the first 30, 90 and 180 days of his prospective employment, a “here’s what I would do” plan to start the effort of turning the sluggish economy around.
“Of course then, at the first board meeting, they slid it back to me and said, ‘Now do it,’ ” Cope said.
The focus of the plan was, in Cope’s words, “to stop the bleeding.”
Within his first six months, he met with 300 to 400 people and developed a picture of the economic climate.
Over the course of the past year, Cope — with county, city and business support — has worked on a business-focused solution to economic development.
The focus: expansion, retention and attraction.
The expansion and retention efforts go hand in hand. Cope acts as a switchboard operator, connecting existing businesses with the resources they need.
“If they need to find something out about a foreign trade zone, I have contacts at the college that can help them, or consultants,” Cope said. “It’s all about saying, ‘I don’t know, but I know someone who can help you.’ ”
Cope’s job also involves connecting local businesses with sources of money — like grants, government-sponsored loans or energy efficiency credits.
“If you bring outside dollars in, you’ll raise wages and the quality of living,” Cope said.
But attracting big businesses isn’t a process that can be done overnight.
Businesses think on three- to five-year timelines, which makes it difficult for a business to decide to locate anywhere, given the uncertainty.
“Probably if you kiss 100 babies, five kiss back,” Cope said. “Ninety-five percent of our time is spent on things that won’t come to fruition.”
But if you don’t chase after those, he continued, that 5 percent will never come your way.
“You have to realize it takes a while,” Cope said. “You can expect to make your first big announcement in the first five years.”
The fact that the county and city have been able to do so in one year is unusual, he said.
The successes have been partly new leadership, partly luck and partly the unique genesis of the TCEDA itself.
According to Pedro, the idea for the authority came out of a meeting with the California Association For Local Economic Development in February 2008.
Pedro and Applegate presented to the board the city and county’s mutual concerns concerning the need for an engine of economic change.
“It was Greg and I standing there before that group at Sonora Oaks,” Pedro said. “One of the comments that people had was that they loved the picture of the city and county standing shoulder to shoulder, saying we needed to work together with the private sector.”
The city and county created a plan for an economic development entity funded by both the county and the city, with room for private contributions. The idea won approval in September 2008.
It was the composition of the Economic Development Authority that attracted Cope, who was successfully leading an economic development agency in Gilroy.
“Unless the government has money in the game, it has no motivation to move economic development forward,” Cope said.
The TCEDA is consistently engaged in 15 to 25 projects with businesses around the community. It has a “business incubator” component that gives low-rent space to a fledgling business that needs time to develop a client base. The current occupant is tutor Lisa Hobbs.
It’s also working with the Small Business Development Center and the Service Corps of Retired Executives to create the Business Alliance, which will provide a single phone number for businesses with questions or concerns to call.
Cope, who lives in the Sonora area with his wife, Kimberly Teter-Cope, is hopeful about the area’s economic outlook. Cope, who has moved to a new economic development post approximately every five years, hopes to stay in the area and continue the economic work that has been started.
“I’d like to stay here 30 years,” Cope said.