Forging our path

2020 Vision: Economic Development

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Forging our path• WHERE ARE WE GOING?

“Thinking about the future is difficult,” said Scott O’Neil, executive director of the IWV Economic Development Corp. To many, the prospect of peering into the unknowable path ahead prevents us from taking the first step.

In pondering how to shape our own destiny, he drew parallels from Bob Dylan’s words regarding his hometown of Hibbing, Minn. The economy was tied up in a single industry — mining, in this case. Most property that had not been scavenged by mining efforts was tied up in farming. The town was small, isolated, hot in summer, cold in winter.

Then, the mine died. “What happens to a town after its livelihood goes? It just dries up and blows away. I thought, ‘Are we like Hibbing, just driving along?’”

If we are to save ourselves from such a fate, we need a vision, O’Neil said. “Once we know where we can to go, developing an approach to get there becomes possible.”

• WHERE DO WE COME FROM?

While our history can scarcely be contained in a single article, it’s worth summarizing highlights. Mining efforts in the Rand Mining District and Searles Valley resulted in some of the first major employers that brought communities to this corner of the desert. In the early 1900s, support services for the Los Angeles aqueduct and agriculture were also major industries.

All of that changed in 1943, when the Navy established Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake — “The Grand Experiment” that partnered civilian scientists with military people to help develop rapid solutions in defense during World War II. Nearly overnight the population exploded from 30 families to thousands.

Over the years the naval base would expand. Today it employs more than 4,000, generates a roughly $500 million annual payroll and commands some 86 percent of our local economy, including associated support services.

But there was a critical shift in the 1970s as the civilian workforce moved off base. The Navy no longer provided the shopping, entertainment, infrastructure and quality of life for those residents, but the city that absorbed them had no additional property, sales or income tax revenues that traditionally fund such costs. The result was a structural deficit that has never been fully resolved (see related story, this page).

• TAKING THE FIRST STEP

“Nothing happens without money,” said O’Neil. “We need to be a citizen-centered, taxbase-focused, service-oriented city. What does that mean? Anything we do to build the city has to move along those lines.

“Being citizen-oriented means that, to have the quality of life we desire, you and I and everyone else has to be responsible and accountable for our future.

“No one likes to talk about taxes, but if we want to have the resources to fund the projects that are important to us, we are going to have to have a discussion as a community.

“Finally, we have to identify, provide and support the services relating to health and safety and quality of life we need. I don’t just mean for the people who live here now, but for anyone we must recruit and retain to support the workforce of tomorrow.”

O’Neil acknowledged that those are broad terms, but emphasized the importance of starting those discussions now.

“We have an incredible opportunity before us.”

Congress has committed at least $3 billion to rebuilding the base. Over the next few years, an estimated 1,500 artisans and craftsman will come into the community — temporarily living, working and consuming alongside our permanent population.

“As a community, we can sit back complacently and allow that to happen to us, absorb whatever benefits drift through until we are left alone again with the same problems; or we can have a structured approach that will allow us posture ourselves to maximize the value of what’s coming.”

So far, he noted, there have been no public calls or forums to start that discussion. “I think the city needs to take the lead in thinking through the logistics. What are we going to need? Where are our visitors going to stay? Are we going to build a camp to house them? If so, where will we put it?”

The housing market is already tight (see related story) and there are not enough hotels to support that kind of visitor traffic.

“But the truth is that the economic value of having that number of people living, eating and shopping here is almost unprecedented in this community. It’s imperative that we understand how to adapt our products and services to serve those consumers. That will certainly build our tax base in the interim, but let’s see if we can find a way to make that growth permanent.”

One of the impediments to strategic growth has been a lack of data, he said. However, the new contract with Buxton (see related story) may finally fill that need.

• COLLABORATION IS KEY

“The last thing I will stress is that collaboration is critical to our success. We need to understand our barriers, and then get our egos out of the way so we can motivate the kinds of actions that will overcome the obstacles on the landscape,” said O’Neil. “Part of that is finding a way to communicate that everyone has a stake in it. We need a vision and a plan, and we have to hold each other accountable to implement it.

“This opportunity is not a panacea that will cure all of our challenges. It’s just a chance for us to engage, plan and work hard to realize our vision. Let’s not waste this opportunity.”

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

Story First Published: 2020-01-03