Confidence rebounds with SPI news; EDA activity

Union Democrat staff

This summer's news is as good as last summer's was bad.

Last July, Sierra Pacific Industries announced that it was closing its Standard lumber mill, which had been a mainstay of the Tuolumne County economy for generations. More than 100 mill workers were laid off, and a ripple effect idled scores more.

It was a kick to the solar plexus. The year had already seen Mervyns and Gottschalks close, and the outlook ahead was grim.

With the timber industry ailing and the general economy moribund, odds against the mill reopening seemed long at best.

What a difference a year makes.

Last week, in what was a surprise to nearly everyone, SPI announced that it would retool its Standard mill to process smaller logs and reopen it next year. That's 130 on-site jobs and, in a positive ripple, possibly five times that many for loggers, truckers, suppliers and more.

This followed an announcement that Kohl's would open at The Junction shopping center, a major expansion for MRL Industries (Sandvik), groundbreaking at Lowe's and Wal-Mart's Supercenter clearing Sonora's planning commission.

"Recession?" the uninitiated might ask. "What recession?"

Happy days aren't exactly here again: Unemployment remains high and the real estate market remains sluggish. However, as jobs return locally and economic growth continues, a more robust housing market is likely to follow.

But something good is clearly happening, and you don't have to look far to come up with one key reason why:

The Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and its resourceful, energetic executive director, Larry Cope.

The secret to his success?

"One one word: perseverance," said Sonora City Administrator Greg Applegate.

Shortly after Cope was hired, Applegate remembers, a high-ranking state's economic development official rendered his verdict: "You've hired yourselves a dynamite individual. The guy is just everywhere."

Much of what Cope and the authority do is behind the scenes.

To most of us, SPI's announcement came out of the blue. But Cope said four months of ongoing meetings involving his agency, the company, and county officials led to the good news.

Much of the talk involved streamlining the review and approval process.

"And we're not done yet," he said, explaining that TCEDA will monitor the construction and permit process through its conclusion.

Although still in the glow of the SPI success, the authority continues to looking for tenants to move into the old Mervyns and Sonora Carpet Mart buildings. Cope talks to retailers, goes to trade shows, matches potential clients with available spaces and workers, and sings the praises of Tuolumne County.

Meanwhile, he never forgets existing businesses, particularly larger employers like MRL/Sandvik. He visits their offices, talks about their futures and makes sure their needs are met,

In a guest opinion published at the end of last year Cope warned readers that it "takes years to build a successful economic development program, even in a good economy."

Obviously, he and the 14-month-old authority have exceeded even his expectations. "We are lucky, we are privileged," Cope said.

But a lot more than luck is involved in our good fortune, and much of the credit should go to the remarkably effective Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

The Union Democrat
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