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A coalition of 13 Central Coast chambers of commerce announced the launch of a new regional economic development organization Monday to boost jobs, business investment, wages and, ultimately, the quality of life in two counties.

About 160 people attended the Central Coast Coalition of Chambers gathering at The Cliffs at Shell Beach to hear about the Hourglass Project, a proposal to create the new organization for what organizers call “the Central Coast Super Region.”

Described as the area “from Vandenberg Air Force Base to Camp Roberts,” the “super region” includes the Santa Ynez, Lompoc and Santa Maria valleys and all of San Luis Obispo County.

An 11-member steering committee envisions the Hourglass Project as the solution to half a dozen economic problem areas and a trio of looming challenges, as well as a way to unify the region “with one voice under one brand.”

Organizers describe the project as regional, business-led, collaborative and action-focused.

The premise of the project is that the chambers and individual businesses as well as the government officials in all the cities and towns will cooperate, supporting and capitalizing on their individual strengths instead of competing and being critical of their neighbors.

“This is about being friends with each other and not spending our time stabbing everybody in the back,” said keynote speaker Tom Clark, who described how a similar effort unified the Colorado area of Denver and Boulder and served as the model for the Central Coast project.

Others who spoke at the gathering included Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara; Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo; Jeffrey Armstrong, president of Cal Poly; Kevin Walthers, president of Hancock College; and Jill Stearns, president of Cuesta College.

“Hourglass” was chosen as the working name for the project “because it signified to us that time is slipping by,” said Melissa James, director of Economic Initiatives and Regional Advocacy for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and a member of the steering committee.

She said the working group will lead the organization until a board of directors is elected and a professional staff is hired. A permanent name reflecting the super region will then be selected.

James said the story of the Central Coast economy is a familiar one but “a story that needs changing.”

The economy chronically underperforms because the area is saturated with lower-wage, lower-productivity jobs while quality, high-paying jobs are limited.

It also has more high-volatility jobs than the national average, underemployment is eight times worse than the state average, the cost of living is more than 30 percent above the national average and the middle class here is shrinking.

“We face several real economic threats,” James said.

Those include a predicted economic downturn, automation threatening 30 percent of the jobs in the next five to 10 years and Diablo Canyon Power Plant closing in 2025, which will eliminate 1,500 head-of-household jobs and 1,700 contractor jobs.

“What we’re talking about is a decline in jobs, which translates to a loss for our residents,” James said.

The Hourglass Project can rewrite the story by creating a regional economic strategy and action plan, market the region to attract investment, talent and new businesses and support the growth and expansion of existing businesses.

It will also foster high-wage jobs in high-growth sectors and advocate for regional economic prosperity at the local, state and federal levels.

The Central Coast’s economic problems aren’t being solved because chambers of commerce, businesses and governments “operate in local silos … fighting with one another for a piece of the pie,” James said.

In addition, despite numerous studies about what’s wrong and what needs to be done, everyone is “stuck admiring the problem,” and the private sector “is on the sidelines.”

The Denver model

Central Coast business people created the Hourglass Project after a visit to Colorado to find out why the Denver-Boulder area was so successful in getting more than 70 government and economic development agencies in nine counties to act as one large community and lift it out of an economic hole.

Clark explained how it was done, using a series of slides and peppering his talk with humorous stories and quips.

He told the audience how another slump in Denver’s resource-based economy, about a third of its offices being vacant and the “brown cloud” of air pollution hanging over the area led to the creation of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., the nation’s first regional public-private economic development program.

One of its most important elements was engaging everyone in the process, including approving the marketing program and submitting project proposals as well as bringing in the environmental community.

Another important element was developing an email and online database — which weren’t universal in 1985 — so that everyone had access to the same data online and received the same information from the Metro Denver EDC at the same time.

He advised businesses to keep good data and instead of hiding it, make it accessible to all, which will result in good public relations and favorable stories by business reporters.

Yet another important element is seeking out leaders with humility, who Clark called “servant leaders.”

The code of ethics for everyone involved in the Metro Denver EDC was simple: You can’t steal; you can’t speak ill of your neighbor; you can’t advertise in a neighboring community; you can’t “go around” a deal; and you must hold all information confidential.

Among many other accomplishments, the efforts of the Metro Denver EDC led to the construction of Denver International Airport, the largest in the United States by size and fifth largest by passenger volume with the longest runway in the nation and more than 200 nonstop flights to destinations around the globe.

But Clark warned the goals of the Hourglass Project won’t be accomplished overnight.

“This program takes time,” he said. “Economies are not built quickly.”

But he added, “Don’t worry if you think it’s going nowhere. There’s always another recession.”

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