EDC looks to future needs

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

EDC looks to future needsWhile many of the speakers at the recent IWV Economic Outlook Conference reported on the current pulse of our community and its near-term prospects, IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil focused on the groundwork he hopes will serve the valley much further down the road.

The industries in East Kern County — defense, energy and aerospace — represent the future of our county, state and nation, he said. These are the economic engines that are critical for tomorrow. “We want to be out front, and we want to lead.”

The valley is growing, O’Neil told his listeners. And although the EDC has been instrumental in supporting business development and promoting quality of life needed to sustain current and incoming residents, many of those efforts are not expected to yield immediate gains.

“I tend to be future-focused, so I’m very glad to have a job that lets me work in that space,” O’Neil told the News Review in a follow-up interview. “But I also realize that most people live in today, so my biggest challenge is balancing the efforts of the EDC so we don’t lose connection with our current clientele. So we still have to be able to achieve concrete steps toward our future that people can see.”

Before taking the EDC helm last year, O’Neil had a career at China Lake that spanned five decades and included 11 years in the top civilian position. To encourage a future focus in his managers, he would regularly assign them to write “news articles” about their organizations — set 10 years in the future.

“So in another decade, when I’ve got a cane and an easy chair, what am I going to be looking at?”

By that time, the aquatics center may be realized — offering therapeutic, recreational, competitive and educational swimming opportunities for residents while helping attract visitors (and the dollars they bring with them).

The Sports Commission could be hosting regional tournaments — offering a low-cost solution for traveling competitive teams while boosting local revenue streams.

Touring packages may draw global travelers to stage their desert, mountain and ghosttown adventures out of Ridgecrest.

Inyokern Airport may have even more tenants seeking a haven for testing and developing advancing technologies.

And the significant population growth finally may give us a base to support more specialized stores and services — helping attract and retain the worldclass workforce necessary to keep the base and community thriving.

“So it’s important to have early wins in order to build confidence and momentum. You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run,” said O’Neil.

But by the time 10 years roll around, it’s too late to come back to today and execute all the necessary actions that will prepare us for that growth.

In each of those future-focused examples, O’Neil and the EDC have planted seeds that are being nurtured in a variety of ways.

“Many of these things our community has been trying to achieve for decades. It’s a lot to ask people who have been investing in economic development for a long time to keep doing it,” he said.

“People want to know what’s different, and I can’t blame them.

“But one thing that is different is our team. On the new board of the EDC, we have people who have demonstrated they can build something — entrepreneurs who have been successful in taking ideas and challenges and moving them forward to realization.”

Among those is Stu Witt, credited with building a thriving center of commercial space at Mojave Air & Space Port, despite a challenging regulatory climate.

“One of the things Stu says — and I absolutely believe this — is that the first rule of development is taking care of what you have.”

In O’Neil’s eyes, the community has no shortage of assets. Sometimes it’s just a matter of re-imagining how to use those resources. He pointed to legendary Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who reorganized the team to win not one but multiple championships.

“We all have well-developed filters, so we have to find a way of more objectively evaluating what we have and make sure we are not overlooking anything,” said O’Neil.

“What we need most is leadership — to be out front with a vision and an ability to show progress. Most of all, we have to be willing to take risks and go where we might not be comfortable. If the EDC can provide that leadership, I think other organizations will follow.”

Watch future editions of the News Review for updates on the continually evolving EDC.

Pictured: EDC Executive Director Scott O’Neil — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2018-03-09