O’Neil: we need unity to capture opportunities ahead

Outlook on 2018: Part 4 in a Series

O’Neil: we need  unity to capture opportunities aheadAs the chapter closed on 2017, leaders in local government, education, health care and economic evelopment reflected on the successes and defeats of the past year while identifying challenges and opportunities in 2018.

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By REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

Initial successes, new leadership and an invitation to the public to partner in the development and pursuit of a plan for a prosperous shared destiny were on display at last night’s first-ever membership bash for the IWV Economic Development Corporation.

“I think we have some incredible opportunities ahead of us in 2018, and one goal of the EDC is to build a coalition with other organizations concerned with our future to work efficiently and effectively toward a common purpose,” IWVEDC Executive Director Scott O’Neil told the News Review.

A year after taking the reins of the IWVEDC, the agency has redefined its leadership and organizational structure, and sharpened its focus on how to increase commerce and quality of life in the valley — an achievement that has been chased by numerous civic and commercial interests for decades.

However, O’Neil acknowledged that one of the historic challenges has been devising a way to tap limited resources — both human and financial — in order to synchronize efforts that often ended up at cross purposes.

Last night O’Neil unveiled a governing board that reflects the diverse interests of the Indian Wells Valley in what he believes is a significant first step toward rejuvenating energy and interest in shaping a more prosperous future.

O’Neil said that when the EDC’s small group of members looked at building a team, they considered professional track record and demonstrated commitment to our community. Ultimately, those recruited were:

Stuart Witt — the now-retired CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port who helped facilitate a renaissance in commercial space and alternative energy and who brings with him a proven record of success, and a philosophy of building up and reducing obstacles for the existing businesses in our valley

Don Zdeba — director of the Indian Wells Valley Water District and a key player in the formation of the state-mandated Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority

Dr. David Ostash — assistant superintendent of human resources for Sierra Sands Unified School District, as well as the president of the board for AltaOne Credit Union

Gary Charlon — State Farm agent and founder of RidgeProject, which is responsible for countless fund-raisers and volunteer-led efforts to beautify the public spaces of IWV

Andy Corzine — a legacy China Laker and progressive leader at NAWCWD, who has restructured local ranges to enable better support for the growing needs of current and future weapons systems

O’Neil noted these newcomers join directors staying on for continuity, who reflect an already rich array of expertise: Donna Hocker (real estate/housing), Chris Ellis (geothermal energy exploitation), Jim Suver (health care), Dan Spurgeon (hospitality) and John Watkins (media).

The EDC has also established an advisory board to help develop strategy. “The rationale is to keep their formal oversight small and efficient, but to have broad access to local expertise to create diversity in thought regarding initiatives and direction.”

These advisors include Jill Board of Cerro Coso Community College, Denny Kline of Kern County, Cedric Knight of NDTI and Mayor Peggy Breeden.

“When I took this job, I sat down and talked to the head of just about every agency and organization in our region,” said O’Neil. “That helped not only with building bridges, but also in identifying some of our challenges, needs and priorities.”

Among those challenges is the chronic imbalance between resources and needs. “While the base underpins about 86 percent of our local economy, it does not pay taxes directly.

“Our challenge is to develop retail and services that can increase local spending while incubating and growing new industry compatible with the mission of the base in order to increase our tax base.”

Some of those goals require an open mindset — particularly when it comes to our perspective on growth, he said.

“Some don’t want to see our community grow. They need to get over it.

“We are growing. The hospital is growing. The base is growing. Our schools are growing. We don’t think big enough, and consequently we underachieve and lose the opportunity for real growth.”

O’Neil is drawing on his 40-plus years of experience working as a civil servant to nurture some opportunities and partnerships between defense and the local private sector that have never been explored.

But in the interim, he has also realized that some existing businesses could also expand with just a little support.

In a personal dealing with Desert Garage Door, a local contractor whose services extend to custom gate-building and installation, O’Neil learned that the company was considering phasing out that element of its business.

“They build a quality product and have a great reputation — it would be unfortunate for the community to lose this business,” he said.

“I realized that the EDC should not only be an incubator of new business but also be a resource to help existing local businesses with their challenges.”

The company sells gates to clients as far as 150 miles away and provides jobs and production for the valley.

“So now we are working with Desert Garage Door to develop a strategy and plan to keep the gate business going.”

O’Neil said that EDC is also working with the city to create an environment that allows local industry to thrive.

“Stu Witt, a good friend of mine, once told me the first step in economic development is to take care of what you already have, and grow it. With Desert Garage Door, we are doing just that.”

This year EDC also introduced its series of “One-Minute Tourist” videos, showcasing world-renowned locations that can attract leisure travelers looking for a hub for their outdoor adventures.

In an effort to help bring athletic tournaments — and the participants they attract — to Ridgecrest, the group also established a sports commission, which has already seen notable success in a baseball tournament that brought 200 visitors into town for both 2016 and 2017.

Each of these tournaments, once hotel rooms, as well as food, fuel and other amenities purchased here were factored in, brought an estimated $65,000-plus in disposable income for just one weekend.

Recent investments in local athletic infrastructure will help build on this endeavor, say EDC members. Their long-term vision for the community also includes an aquatic center that will serve residents and function as an economic engine to drive leisure and athletic traffic into the community.

“I’m really looking forward to the coming year,” said O’Neil. “We have a great board, we are starting to accumulate some resources we can invest and we have developed important contacts across the region that I believe will help tie our region together.

“What will carry us forward is a groundswell whose goal is not protecting the status quo, but believing in a much larger vision of our community.

“It may not be realistic, but I would love to see 100 percent of our community get involved.

“You’ve seen how a wave works? I want to see that kind of energy, where all of us are moving together toward a better future.”

Story First Published: 2018-01-26