Earlier this week I had an unexpected visit from my friend Louis Stewart, who happens to be the Deputy Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the State of California’s Office of Economic Development. He was in the Inland Empire to tour Esri, the international Geographic Information System software company based in Redlands.
I’ve written elsewhere that this company is an anomaly in our region, but doesn’t have to be. The second largest privately held technology company in the world, Esri employs 9,000 employees worldwide with 2,500 of that number based in the little town of Redlands. The founder is from the city, and wanted his company to remain in his hometown, the place where he learned his business values growing up in his family’s nursery.
I rarely have frivolous lunch conversations with my friends and my chat with Louis was no different. As someone whose job includes working with all of the iHubs, California’s designated innovation centers, I used the opportunity to ask him what makes a regional innovation hub successful? What are the attributes they share? What can our local leaders do to encourage long-term economic growth in our region?
His answer focused on the ways policymakers can make “innovation” happen by creating a sense of community where “intentional” collisions occur. He used Mission Bay as an example. I was with Louis on a tour of San Francisco’s Mission Bay community in 2010, and since that visit, he informed me that the area has grown into a hub for the biotech industry, four incubators have sprung-up, a medical center, and more housing. Because there is an opportunity for casual collaboration and the exchange of ideas, the area has attracted and retained some great talent. “Policymakers must have a vision to intentionally build an economic ecosystem that meets the needs of the individual community,” he said.
Companies like Esri, those that are invested in the community, are great examples of what is possible. It is important that policymakers give people a reason to stay and build. And according to Louis, a good quality of life is essential.
His response reflected my opposition to the continued warehousing of the Inland landscape. In an October 2014 BuzzFeed article aptly entitled Warehouse Empire, reporter Jessica Garrison paints a picture of the Inland Empire as a proliferation of large warehouses, “there is now enough industrial space in Riverside and San Bernardino counties to enclose almost half of Manhattan.” And officials in our cities and counties are continuing to rezone land and regularly approve new distribution centers. Each new warehouse project means more trucks, more trains, and more air pollution. And the proposed World Logistics Center in Moreno Valley, if approved by the Moreno Valley City Council, would add 41 million square feet of warehouse space and increase the number of daily diesel trips per day by an estimated 29,000.
Last week we witnessed the swearing-in of new (and in some cases more seasoned) elected officials who took an oath to represent the people they were elected to serve. Two cities in particular, Perris and Moreno Valley both located in Riverside County, are struggling to attract and build strong economic engines while improving the quality of life for their residents. There are many experts that can be utilized for insight and guidance who have no vested interest in the decisions of the City Council and city staff and are not on the payroll of someone who will gain from the choices voted on in open session.
It is important that as sworn representatives of the public trust, our officials practice discernment in all decisions, study successful models of economic development, and remember that their job is to represent the best interest of the people they serve.
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