The past year held few things to celebrate in terms of economic recovery, but the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority claimed a solid measure of success in revitalizing the local business climate at its meeting Friday.
In a presentation at the Tuolumne Trails camp near Groveland, TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope pointed to the return of key industrial partners such as Sierra Pacific Industries, the arrival of new national retailers and the creation of the Business Alliance to foster homegrown businesses on the local level.
The progress seen in 2010 with Cope at the helm of the city-county joint powers authority has been a departure from previous efforts in economic development, which became hampered by requirements to quantify the elusive concept of economic development, said board chairman Hank Russell.
“It’s been impressive to me,” he said. “We are very fortunate to have acquired Larry. He has the energy, the knowledge and the connections. He made things happen that otherwise wouldn’t.”
Telling signs of an improving business climate are easy to spot.
The arrival of Kohl’s, Lowe’s and SPI grabbed headlines with the addition of approximately 380 new jobs by May 2011 and the promise of hundreds more supporting positions springing up in response to the new growth.
Cope also announced that the former Mervyn’s building has been snapped up by national retail clients, although he refuses to reveal which business will be taking up shop.
In addition, several local high tech firms also took advantage of an improving economic climate to expand product lines into new fields, including Sandvik’s — formerly MRL Inc. — partnership with the solar energy field and the growth of PowerPlus Inc.
Much of that work rests on using the TCEDA as a facilitator between government and business to cut through red tape by ensuring that businesses get all the information they need the first time.
“We’re trying to get all the requirements out in front of them at one time so they can do their homework and come back and be successful,” Russell said.
Although 2010 offered a year of visible successes, the task of economic development ultimately rests on the cultivation of local resources and attraction of outside money and talent to spur continued growth.
With that in mind, the TCEDA specifically did not involve itself with businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
Instead, Cope engaged with two other economic development entities, including the Service Corps of Retired Executives, the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center to create the Tuolumne County Business Alliance, a one-stop shop for small business development.
The alliance reached 350 small business clients in 2010, assisting budding entrepreneurs with developing successful business plans, securing loans and training in business software.
Business to Business trainings attracted more than 100 attendees over the course of the year, and the proposed “business incubator” allowed fledgling businesses a low-cost opportunity to mature before taking the full brunt of economic realities.
The TCEDA board instructed Cope and his assistant Beth Hartline to keep the ball rolling on business development and attraction, with a focus on establishing a business-friendly reputation for the city and county.
“I think that establishing a reputation that Tuolumne County is business friendly, and that there are people here who will help you move your business and establish a business is the hardest to change,” Russell said. “That’s probably the biggest thing we can do for the future.”
Although prospects are bright, there are still uncertainties on the horizon. High tech employers complain that there are not enough potential employees with sufficient engineering and science education to hire in the county.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget also presents a hurdle, as the city’s portion of the TCEDA costs is funded through the Redevelopment Agency, which the governor has put on the chopping block.