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Co-op approach should bring economic results

Throughout the at times tortured 10-year tenure of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Co., no one questioned its goals.

Attracting new business, retention and expansion of existing enterprises, creating jobs and expanding the tax base have always been keys to the economic health of both the county and of the city of Sonora. But funding, performance and accountability questions plagued the nonprofit corporation until 2005, when the EDC became dormant.

But now county supervisors and Sonora Councilmen have voted to form a new Economic Development Authority with all the EDC's goals and none of its drawbacks.

The proposed agency would have seed or start-up money of nearly $200,000, a guaranteed annual income of at least $100,000 and a seven-member board of directors that includes two county supervisors, two Sonora Council members and three at-large community members.

This way, if the new authority falls short of reaching its goals, supervisors and council members have only themselves to blame.

Amid optimism, excitement and unanimous county and city votes, the Economic Development Authority is expected to be open for business by the first of next year.

"We have the opportunity, as city and county, to step forward and make something happen," said Sonora Administrator Greg Applegate. Businesses, both those already here and those thinking about making the move, could find a friend in the new EDA.

With the economy slumping, the timing could not be better nor the need more urgent.

Applegate, County Administrator Craig Pedro and members of the board and council should be credited with bringing the Economic Development Authority from concept to reality. Its seeds were planted early this year, at a Sonora summit hosted by the California Association for Local Economic Development.

CALED staffers, who before the summit interviewed community leaders and business owners, found that a key priority among them is bringing more and better jobs to the county. But expanding and relocating businesses need better infrastructure, ranging from roads to high-speed Internet. Summit participants agreed that providing such service is essential to the community's economy.

Consensus emerged from the meeting. County and city leaders carried the ball from there.

Supervisor Liz Bass, a former Sonora Councilwoman, played a key role in finding funding for the new EDA. She suggested tapping an untouched fund that over 15 years had accumulated nearly $500,000 in property tax revenues paid to the county by the city under an agreement related to formation of Sonora's redevelopment agency.

Under the county plan, $195,000 of this money will be used to get the EDA started, and the remainder for a new county housing program.

More importantly, the county has proposed using its continuing income from this agreement — about $65,000 a year — for permanent EDA funding. The city, in turn, will contribute $36,000 of its own redevelopment income annually, meaning the agency can count on about $100,000 in funding a year.

This already puts the EDA well ahead of the EDC, which not only relied on dues from existing businesses but each year came to the board and council to request funds.

Its pleas often degenerated into political squabbling that yielded more irritation than income.

The new EDA, with steady income, elected leaders on its board and plans to hire an experienced administrator, will not only hit the ground running but will have an edge in reaching goals that could bring both the city and county an improved economy.

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