To paint the debate over the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority as a dispute between the city of Sonora and Tuolumne County is to miss the point entirely.
This is — and has been from the start — a conversation about what is the best way to go about attracting business to a small, and relatively poor, county, the amount of money to spend and what businesses would be interested in coming here.
In other words, a plan.
None of that seems to have been considered in the scattershot journey the TCEDA has been on for the past several years. Its director, Larry Cope attended a host of trainings and conferences about economic development as well as biotechnology, Chinese investment, entrepreneurial startups, biomedical devices, entertainment and game development.
Have we seen any of those types of businesses locate here or as Cope has claimed is it simply too early to see the results? How likely is it we will see any of those businesses?
He attended a convention on retail, which seems appropriate since many of the projects he’s worked on involved bringing new stores to the area — Kohls, Joann Fabric, the new Chrysler dealership. The Natural Wood Products Expo West he went to seems on the face of it to be a winner as well.
Cope spent more than $100,000 on these trips, almost daily meals and other purchases in the past two years. That information came from his records, which The Union Democrat obtained and spent weeks in painstaking review of hundreds of pages of documents.
By and large, Cope kept thorough records of who he met with and where — nothing about why — but yet when he was asked for a list of the businesses that have expanded or located here he was at a loss. He could provide only a list of the ones he remembered and those names were redacted. So we really have no idea.
Think about the money — most of it from taxpayers — that’s been spent. It is approaching $4 million in the decade the TCEDA has operated. Many readers have wondered about the return on investment. Cope has talked about the hundreds of hours he’s spent meeting with people around town and prospects.
But look around. Do you see a lot of well-paying jobs? There is an expanded daycare and a floor stain manufacturer, a car restoration business and restaurants. All great businesses for Tuolumne County. Should there be more?
But the truth is this is essentially not about Cope. This is about a board that provided little, if any, oversight.
The Board of Supervisors did the right thing, if for the wrong reason, Tuesday in dissolving the TCEDA and starting over. Some supervisors said they were tired of the bickering. They miss the point that the bickering would not have happened if they had been transparent in their dealings. Take a look at the Madera County Economic Development Commission’s annual reports. Thirteen years of reports are online. They provide a lot of detail about the work done by the three-member staff, which operate on just about the same amount of money as Tuolumne County.
Madera County is three times the size of Tuolumne County in population and raised some of its money through events and revolving loans to businesses.
Maybe Cope will remain on the county payroll, and maybe he will see this whole affair as a wake-up call for fiscal restraint and work conducted in the open as public sector work requires.
Maybe the board will realize people would not be using up staff time asking for documents they are allowed to see if the board acted solely in the public’s interest.
Supervisor John Gray said it wasn’t his job to micromanage. And then he insulted the people of Tuolumne County by saying they were shallow. All they want is a Trader Joe’s and an In-N-Out.
More likely, what they want is a job that pays enough for them to buy a nice house and feed their family, maybe go out to eat sometimes and take a vacation to someplace like Monterey or Boston.