‘Why live and work in Ridgecrest?’

EDC banks on the future of IWV by endeavoring to improve the answers to that question

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

‘Why live and work in Ridgecrest?’Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil (second from left, front) sits with IWVEDC board members, from left, (front) Peggy Breeden, John Watkins, Jill Board, (back) Chris Ellis, Donna Hocker, Stu Witt, Denny Kline, Andy Corzine, Jim Suver, Don Zdeba, Dan Spurgeon and Dr. David Ostash. — Courtesy photo

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Why should you live and work in Ridgecrest? For the last two years, leaders of the IWV Economic Development Corp. have taken some compelling answers to that question and persistently worked to improve them.

“I don’t see a better set of opportunities, or a better collection of assets, for building a future than what we have right here in the Indian Wells Valley,” said Scott O’Neil, executive director for the EDC.

Two years ago O’Neil closed out a four-decade career at China Lake (retiring as the top civilian at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division) and brought his team-building skills to the EDC. After laying the groundwork for a comprehensive network of community interests — reflected in his board, which includes members from education, health care, industry, housing and more — the EDC team began identifying needs and forming a plan to address them.

“It’s not difficult to find reasons to want to live here,” said O’Neil, pointing to higher-than-average median incomes and lower-than-average costs of living as two of the primary considerations.

“There are a lot of people, myself included, who like the people here. This is where our friends and family live. But we have some unique advantages a lot of places in California don’t — we have almost no traffic or air pollution, we have easy access to the wide-open spaces that facilitate outdoor recreation and our community plays an integral part in the important mission of keeping our country safe.”

There are challenges, however, to being a small city in an isolated location. Last year China Lake leadership revealed that a lack of readily available housing was shaping up to be a deterrent to an aggressive hiring effort. Such a disruption could even pose a threat to national security.

The EDC stepped up to the challenge, engaging in short-term and long-term options for accommodating hundreds of new hires.

“Because the early focus of our mission was building relationships, that put us in a position to make necessary connections on some of the projects that don’t necessarily involve all the stakeholders of our community, but will certainly impact them.”

O’Neil helped coordinate efforts between developers, investors and planning officials to ensure that the community had housing options for the nearterm future and a vision of how to continue to build toward the needs beyond the horizon.

As plans for securing sustainable sources of water and energy have become a focus in the Indian Wells Valley, the EDC helped identify and procure a source of revenue — upwards of $7.5 million annually — to fund research into the challenges and development of solutions.

In the interest of improving quality of life, EDC is also engaged in facilitating public access to affordable high-speed internet. Members have led discussions about building an aquatic center — which would not only address community needs but also create another demand-generator for local travel.

Many of the challenges for improving economic vitality are not new.

For decades civic leaders have worked to overcome a historic structural deficit in providing infrastructure and quality of life to a town with very little industry — the key to a robust tax base that can adequately fund such needs.

But the EDC is working with groups that bring in “new” money, and provide incentives for residents to spend their dollars here instead of out of town.

“While there is a lot of work yet to be done, we have made significant progress toward achieving some of our near- and long-term goals,” said O’Neil.

However, he noted, even with many stakeholders working toward similar goals, many of the challenges facing the community have existed for decades and will take time to resolve.

“There was a consensus that economic development means new/more jobs, increased tax base, higher hotel occupancy and more people moving to the area,” he wrote in a briefing to his board. “The best and quickest way to affect these was via the Navy [which constitutes an estimated 85 percent of the local economy].”

Bringing the F-35 program to China Lake will result not only in more defense billets, but also in new facilities, more visitors and more jobs that support impacted industries.

The EDC is also focused on technological trends, including the burgeoning needs for secure and reliable data storage.

O’Neil said that the EDC would also like to help other local facilities reach their highest potential for growth and development and work with similarly missioned agencies to streamline ways to capture opportunities.

“I look around at what is available in our county and compare it to what we have nationwide, and we really have some of the best assets in oil, wind energy and agriculture,” he said.

“But I think the future growth of our county will be in East Kern.”

Story First Published: 2019-01-04