County approves EDC request

Supervisors take action to support China Lake, East Kern industries

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

County approves EDC requestWith opportunities of potentially $4 billion in earthquake recovery funding, along with growing contributions to defense, aerospace and energy, IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil asked the Kern County Board of Supervisors for three action items expressing support for the mission at China Lake and the burgeoning industries of East Kern.

“Today, our nation faces aggressive near-peer threats that are agile in deploying capable warfighting tools using cutting-edge technology,” O’Neil told the board on Tuesday.

“Now is the time to strengthen our technological capability by investing in an organization that has a strong history developing and demonstrating innovative weapons systems solutions, a culture of can-do that is focused on our warfighter, and an end-to-end capability that enables such work spanning research, development, test and evaluation without leaving the confines of the naval base … that organization is China Lake.

“We must mobilize to preserve China Lake and its whole mission of research, development, acquisition, test and evaluation. It is critical to the future of our nation, our Navy, the people of Ridgecrest and Kern County.”

Following O’Neil’s presentation, a brief discussion, and support from other Kern agencies, the board agreed to:

• Send letters of support to Navy officials and political leaders, urging them to make China Lake whole again

• Commission an organization to visit Ridgecrest, Mojave, Tehachapi and other East Kern communities with the objective of discussing opportunities, building relationships and establishing actionable goals

• Engage the county’s lobbyist in Sacramento to work California delegations to support China Lake reconstruction

During his presentation, O’Neil gave a brief history of China Lake, which was established in World War II. “The Great Experiment” was to match up civilian laboratories with military offices in order to develop solutions that could be rapidly deployed int theater.

More than 75 years later, China Lake writes nearly $2 billion in business annually, employs 4,500 and has a payroll of $600 million.

China Lake contracts out another $1 billion in work each year, about $200 million of which is picked up by Kern County vendors. Of the $28 million annually in credit-card purchases, about $3 million is spent in county.

“China Lake is important to Kern County, and I think its importance to the county is growing,” said O’Neil.

“Why is it important to us over here to help you over there?” asked 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason.

O’Neil said that importance was underscored by the 2016 budget crisis triggered by plummeting oil prices.

“These industries move on different economic cycles — when oil is down, aerospace tends to be up,” said O’Neil. “We as a county could balance our portfolio and stabilize our economy, which is important.”

Both Gleason and 2nd District Supervisor Zack Scrivner acknowledged a “cactus curtain” — which has historically divided Kern into independently functioning regions.

“We need to continue to break that down. There are organizations that are trying to do a better job of that, but the more we can cross pollinate the better,” said Scrivner.

Spokespersons for the Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government, Kern County EDC and Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce used the public microphone to express support for O’Neil’s proposal.

During a follow-on presentation Wednesday to the Ridgecrest Exchange Club, O’Neil said that he believes it’s time for Kern to take note of the potential of our access to space, renewable energies and the government operations at China Lake, Edwards and NASA Armstrong.

“The question I asked was, ‘Are we valuing our East Kern assets appropriately?’ I don’t particularly believe we are,” said O’Neil.

“I think we are really fortunate to have these industries in our backyard. There are states in the union who would die to have what we have.

“My intent was to raise the dialog and get our supervisors to look at what’s happening out here.”

O’Neil said he is encouraged by the response, but added that part of the burden rests on East Kern leadership.

“‘Hope’ is not a good strategy. We have to be deliberate to make sure that $4.1 billion in funding is realized, and we have to raise awareness so that we are solidifying our technical support and our customer base.”

While the recovery funding is by no means guaranteed, O’Neil said China Lake stands a good chance of seeing it.

“First of all, our ranges and the environment that come with them are not replicatable anywhere else. We have mountains, deserts and coastal access — all of which is representative of the operational scenarios we face in defense.

“Uniquely, we have the geography, the airspace, and the technical capabilities to accomplish this mission like no one else. This is the optimal place to keep the mission.”

O’Neil recalled the historic founding of China Lake, when the nature of the work was all but unknown to the outside world.

“The nature of the work is sensitive, and the world is not a safe place. So we don’t really speak aloud about what we do.

“But in times of crisis, when we need to justify the Navy and government investment, we need to talk about our military value. It dates back to WWII, but it continues to grow. And I believe it is the highest it has been in our existence.”

Pictured: IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil

Story First Published: 2019-09-13