Economic Summit draws keen interest, Part 1

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HEBER — As a cross section of Imperial County government and business leaders gathered to get the latest buzz on economic development, economist Michael Bracken had a stern message and it was not anything new.

“Do not give up your water. You lose your water, this place is done. This is the one strategic advantage you have,” said Bracken, managing partner and chief economist for Development Management Group, Inc.

Bracken has done local economic assessments for years and so it was no surprise he was the lead speaker for the Imperial Valley General Assembly & Economic Summit May 18-19 at the Twin Dragon Restaurant. The event was co-hosted by the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp. and the Imperial County Transportation Commission.

The event was heavier on the broad strokes of data and information than the direct networking often associated with economic development conferences.

“We cannot and we should not be looking to solve our own issues or advancing in silos. Think of the strength in numbers when we work together,” El Centro City Council Member Cheryl Viegas-Walker said in introductory remarks to a group that included many representatives from local cities. She spoke in her capacity as a director on the League of California Cities, Imperial County Division.

Bracken followed with an address titled “Imperial Valley: State of the Economy.” It drew keen attention. Sweeping through a summary of data and facts from the larger global economy right down to street-level nuances, he noted Imperial County has many advantages businesses seek, but to compete it must leverage them.

Stating the massive farming industry in California’s Central Valley is at risk because that area is “drying up” due to the drought, Bracken argued, “As long as you have water certainly you will see the higher-value ag headed here.”

The Imperial Irrigation District, the major water and electric-power utility in the county, holds the rights to 3.1 million acre feet of Colorado River water per year, by far the largest allotment in California.

Besides water, Bracken noted, the county’s advantages include its location along the Interstate 8 corridor in proximity to some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, and the affordability of its land, labor and housing. But the county has dilemmas that must be overcome.

Stating that in Imperial County 20 percent of the residents over age 25 have below a ninth grade education, he said, “It’s tough to get those upper-middle class jobs when you don’t have the education.”

Over its 17 years in existence IVEDC, a corporation that draws on the financial contributions and participation of the public and private sectors, has certainly done intensive work to let the broader business world know what the county has to offer. Besides consistent travel within the U.S., Chief Executive Officer Tim Kelley has been to China about 20 times, and South American nations recently joined his visa portfolio. He is usually accompanied by IVEDC staff and a variety of local business and government leaders.

Efforts have paid off most in renewable energy. In the last decade the county has seen about $7 billion worth of renewable energy projects go online, including solar, wind and geothermal.

Myriad elements must coalesce for such success and through its summit IVEDC and ICTC sought to provide insight into them. There were panels on education, healthcare, urban redevelopment financing, international trade, infrastructure and transportation, each featuring an impressive array of experts.

Summing up the outcome as the summit neared its close, Kelley said his assessment of it was “very good. You could take the speakers here, they are the best you could have anywhere.”

In a segment titled “Imperial Valley: Working Tri-nationally,” a panel that included representatives of the governments of the U.S., Mexico and Canada joined local business/economic develop leaders in detailing how trade between the three nations has grown since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Under NAFTA trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada has increased 300 percent, said Frederic Fournier, who leads the Canadian consulate office in San Diego.

“Canada has a trade office in San Diego. We’re the eyes and ears in the market,” Fournier explained, adding that many do not realize how active Canada is in the tri-national market.

Kevin Vaillancourt, a political and economic officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana, said his office fosters a government to government relationship between Mexico and the U.S. because political issues affect trade as much as economic ones.

“A high grade of consumers need to know the political winds (in Mexico) which affect life on both sides of the border,” Vaillancourt said, recalling that an arrangement that allowed armed U.S. agents to pre-inspect trucks in Mexico headed for U.S. border crossings required a change the Mexican Constitution.

“That case wasn’t made in Mexicali. It was made in Mexico City,” he said, also adding that his office has “made an effort to get out into the streets and listen” to what the needs of businesses are throughout California’s border with the Mexican state of Baja California that includes both Tijuana and Mexicali.

The summit follows the success of IVEDC’s Ninth Annual Renewable Energy Summit held in March. Kelley noted that back when the first renewable energy event was held locals started expressing interest when out-of-area attendees had already sold it out. It is an example that Imperial Valley, he stressed, must do a better job supporting and promoting itself.

“People are talking about us and (sometimes) they’re not saying nice things. We have to get in front of them,” he said, adding, “Notice how now a place isn’t a jungle, it’s a rainforest. We are an oasis, not a desert. We are in the middle of everywhere.”

Coming up: Part II: Is there an encore for renewable energy success?