Dave Cross/Improving North County Santa Maria Times | Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2011 12:00 am

As concerns about the local economy continue, there are hopeful signs we have made it through the worst and we are finally on a slow path toward recovery.

Santa Maria is one of the very few cities in California that has consistently invested in economic development, and the region stands to benefit from its investment as the economy improves.

The city financially supports the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Commission. The Santa Maria Public Airport District has followed suit, providing financial support while working to position itself for a strong economic future.

The Chamber of Commerce provided a local stimulus effort with an aggressive “Thanks for shopping Santa Maria” campaign put into place to bolster fourth quarter sales in 2010. That critical time frame is make-or-break for many local retailers. It was well-received by local businesses and the community. While the sales figures are not yet available, it will hopefully have contributed to stemming the tide in a two-year downward trend in retail sales.

The Santa Maria Economic Development Commission works as a department of the chamber, and is marketing the region to prospective companies. It has also been aggressive in retention efforts and strengthening local industry and manufacturing.

The EDC sponsors a strong manufacturers association, and provides workshops, programs and resources to assist this important segment of our economy.

Santa Maria has a robust industrial element, which provides higher wages than retail and agriculture, and its stability is critical to our region.

Construction, which provides the highest wages, has been decimated, with a staggering 50-percent unemployment rate. This puts enormous pressure on local industry to remain solid, and this is where Santa Maria’s investment will pay off.

In contrast to the downward trend in construction, some manufacturers are doing well, and the success of these companies reveals where industry may be heading. Companies that repackage existing products, embrace technology, focus on improving health care and providing equipment for essential services are the strongest performers.

C&D Zodiac, at the airport, retrofits aircraft interiors and has benefitted from the fact that airlines and private owners would rather retrofit their existing fleet than purchase new aircraft. The company employs almost 450 workers and could be expanding their workforce in the future.

Fusion Call Centers is a Santa Maria-based customer-service center that has quietly become one of the area’s top employers, with over 500 workers. Riding the wave of online technology, Fusion provides real-time customer service to social network sites like Facebook, and for online gaming.

Hardy Diagnostics, another top local employer, provides medical supplies and products for laboratory research. The company is benefiting from a strong health care industry.

Other Santa Maria companies that have weathered the storm and are preparing to move ahead include the manufacturing of fire hoses, wire and cable, industrial couplers, baby care products, high tech communications equipment, agricultural packaging, directional drilling equipment and many other products.

Looking past the current economic situation and into the future, the city has set aside 900 acres in what is called Area 9 for industrial expansion, and the city has available State Water to accommodate growth.

The future business park at the airport will also play an important role by providing over 700 acres of additional industrial space.

Union Valley Parkway, which is under construction, will provide direct access from Highway 101 to the business park, which shows yet another way Santa Maria is positioning itself to attract companies that will provide the kinds of jobs we need for our area.

While the economy continues to struggle, Santa Maria is looking ahead and showing signs of benefiting from investing in economic development. The Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Commission will continue their role in supporting local business and attracting companies to the area.

Dave Cross is vice chairman of Committee INC, and director of the Santa Maria Economic Development Commission.

Posted in Commentary on Thursday, February 24, 2011 12:00 am