Voice your ideas for the future of economic development

Cole Przybyla, the newly hired economic development director for Tuolumne County, wants to hear people’s thoughts on economic development in the community.

Przybyla is encouraging people to take an online survey he created at https://s.surveyplanet.com/LoNDzrL8eH

The best way to reach Przybyla is by phone at (209) 288-4030 because he plans to be out of his office much of the time. His office is located where the revenue recovery department was previously on the second floor of the County Administration Center at 2 S. Green St. in Sonora.

Przybyla also has a series of open chats scheduled at coffee shops throughout the county where people can talk to him.

The chats will be from 9 a.m. to noon on the following dates:

Wednesday: Caffe Blossom, 23063 Fuller Road, Twain Harte.

Thursday: Union Hill Coffee, 63 N. Washington St., Sonora.

Aug. 20: FireFall Coffee Roasting Co., 18749 Highway 120, Groveland.

Aug. 21: Starbucks at The Junction shopping center in East Sonora.

Aug. 22: Revive Cafe, 18698 Pine St., Tuolumne.

Aug. 27: Woods Creek Cafe, 18256 Highway 108, Jamestown.

Aug. 28: Mandy’s Breakfast House, 22267 Parrotts Ferry Road, Sonora.

Aug. 29: Alicia’s Sugar Shack, 24191 Highway 108, Sugar Pine.

Cole Przybyla says he’s tried to spend much of his first month as Tuolumne County’s economic development director outside of his new office.

Przybyla isn’t traveling out of state to trade shows and ordering room service in fancy hotel rooms, however. He’s meeting face-to-face with business owners and community members throughout the county to understand what they want for the future of economic development.

“Businesses are interested in how the economic development department can be a benefit to them on an individual basis,” he said during an interview in downtown Sonora’s Courthouse Square on Friday.
The 29-year-old former business owner was hired by the county Board of Supervisors on July 2 to fill the void left by the demise of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, which was shut down in February amid controversy over how it was operating.

Public outrage over the agency was stoked by a citizen’s lawsuit and Grand Jury report released in June 2018 that found a lack of oversight and accountability for how the former chief executive officer, Larry Cope, was spending his time and public funds.

An analysis by The Union Democrat of Cope’s expense records found that he ate at local restaurants nearly every working day at taxpayer expense in 2017 and spent tens of thousands on multi-day business trips to places like Boston, Las Vegas and San Francisco over a two-year period.

Przybyla said one of the Grand Jury’s findings about the former agency that stood out to him most was that some businesses the jury interviewed didn’t know the agency existed, something that he’s hoping to change through his outreach.

“Businesses are happy I’m reaching out to them,” he said. “I’m getting out in the community to make sure they know we’re here for them.”

The meetings have also helped Przybyla understand unique issues in each community that stifle economic development. For example, every person he spoke with in Groveland told him a lack of parking was the foremost problem in that area.

Przybyla said he hopes to work with other agencies and county departments on those individual issues specific to the various communities, while also chipping away at some larger overarching concerns.

A need for more affordable housing and better infrastructure, particularly with respect to high-speed broadband Internet, are two countywide issues that Przybyla sees as holding back the area’s economic potential.

One way that Przybyla hopes to help with affordable housing is by promoting investment in the area through the federal Opportunity Zone program, which was created by President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax reform law.

“You will be hearing about that from me a lot in the coming months and probably years,” he said.

The program aims to encourage investment in economically distressed areas by providing tax breaks on capital gains that are invested within the zones.

For example, a person who sold a house for more than they purchased it for could invest that profit in a project within a designated Opportunity Zone and not have to pay a capital gains tax on it.

Opportunity Zones are defined as low-income census tracts that have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent, or a median family income of 80 percent or less of the state’s median family income.

Przybyla said the Sonora and Groveland areas are both designated Opportunity Zones. The state has a total of 879, which account for one-tenth of the total population.

“It’s not like they are everywhere,” he said of the potential for attracting investment.

Another initiative Przybyla said he’s working on is creating a guide for existing businesses that are looking to expand or relocate to the county, which will include data on demographics, retail gaps, and information on resources available to help them.

The former TCEDA created a similar resource guide, but it was solely geared toward people starting a business for the first time.

Przybyla said funding for the guide will come out of his department’s marketing budget. The department’s total budget through June 30 is about $194,000, which includes his annual salary of nearly $100,000 plus health and retirement benefits.

The former TCEDA’s annual budget was $460,732, of which the county paid $344,292.

In addition, Przybyla said he’s actively trying to find tenants for the vacant buildings in the Sonora Plaza shopping center on Mono Way that previously housed Orchard Supply Hardware and Cost-U-Less.

Przybyla said he hopes to announce a deal within a couple of months for the space formerly occupied by Orchard Supply. He also said he’s reached out to businesses about the Cost-U-Less space that include grocery stores geared toward more healthy food and others in the entertainment and retail industries.

One of the more controversial aspects about the former TCEDA was a lack of metrics to gauge the performance of its CEO, who was one of the highest paid county employees at more than $163,000 per year.

Cope acknowledged that he kept no records prior to 2016 on the assistance he provided to businesses.

Przybyla said he’s created a charting system to make a record of all the contacts he makes that will include information like the size of the business, where it’s located and type of industry.

“It will give you a better idea of how I spend my time,” he said. “I think you’ll see there’s a lot going on.”

Despite being a county employee, Przybyla said he’s still working projects within the city limits like filling the Sonora Plaza vacancies because he believes it should be treated as a community that’s part of the county.

Przybyla said he will work with the city after it figures out how it’s going to handle economic development moving forward.

“I will make sure we’re a partnership,” he said.

In June, the city council approved spending $7,500 for Chico-based consultant Chabin Concepts to gather information and create a report that it hopes will help guide its economic development efforts.

City Administrator Tim Miller said on Friday the consultant was updating all of the economic data in the Vision Sonora Plan, which was completed in 2013, and will hopefully begin interviewing stakeholders within the next week.

Miller said stakeholders include business owners in the city, residents, and organizations involved with economic development, such as the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau and Tuolumne County Business Council.

After the report is complete, Miller said there will be a public meeting to go over the information and get input before the council reviews it and decides what to do next.

“I expect we’ll have a report to take forward to the council within the next couple of months,” Miller said.

Przybyla has reached out to Miller to schedule a meeting but the two have yet to connect. Miller said he would be happy to sit down with him when they can work out a time.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.