Merced's economic development: the good, the bad and the pretty

12/16/2008 2:02 AM

12/16/2010 12:00 PM

Listened last Friday to several folks trying to bring, keep and grow business in Merced.

 We know how important it is to support efforts that help companies that provide and add jobs.  A decent job may be the only--but certainly the most effective--way to solve a lot of our problems.

 If you've got to get up in the morning and report for work at 9 a.m. and work till 6 p.m., that leaves less time to get into trouble.  Your paycheck means that you usually don't need to resort to crime to make a buck.  The drug tests now required by most employers keep you straight, at least more than you'd be without them.  And even if you hate your job, a slight shift in your attitude toward it can help improve your overall outlook on life.

 So although imperfect, jobs can help cut crime, poverty, drug use and mental problems.

Here are a couple of constructive approaches:

Elaine Post is head of Los Banos' Redevelopment Agency.  The outfit gets money to help local firms from property taxes, grants and tax-exempt bonds.  One recent wrinkle is the use of microenterprise loans.  A mechanic, low-income, wanted to bootstrap his way out of working for somebody else and start his own business.  So Post loaned him the money to get off the ground; his wife serves as bookkeeper, his father as interpreter.  We don't know if he'll make it, but the gumption and guts he's already shown make us pull for him to succeed.

Bill Andersen is assistant director of the Small Business Development Center at the Merced Tri-College Center (209 381-6557; andersew@stanalliance.com).  He deals with companies that have 20 employees or fewer.  Of the firms that have come to the center or its equivalent, Andersen says 90 percent of them are still in business after five years; of the ones that didn't, 65 percent fail within two years.  He and his colleagues help with business plans, cash-flow analysis, feasibility studies and the other architecture of start-ups.  Since August he's helped 51 clients, including one woman who has begun selling her sugar-free cakes and pies to county eateries.

That's the good part.

The other part is that one of the county's leading voices on economic development harbors such off-the-wall opinions about how business is done by and in Japan as to be both counter-productive and dangerous.  He talks about the Japanese government conspiring with industry to gain an unfair advantage against American and other corporations.

This hoary bromide was laid to rest decades ago, while I was covering Japan for a series of international publications that focused on business and finance.  I heard this same BS for years from Americans, Europeans and Australians who blamed the Japanese for their own shortcomings.

Even if some of the charges were true then, they've long since been abandoned by the ever-pragmatic Japanese because 1)the tactics stopped working; 2)the World Trade Organization and other global economic traffic cops ruled them out of bounds; 3)the American, European and Australian companies realized that to compete with Japan, they had to focus on their own workers, product quality and customer service.

For someone to still be laboring under this delusion--and to be responsible for attracting investment, foreign and domestic, to Merced--is disturbing.  How many deals have gone begging because this official doesn't trust the Japanese?  How much tunnel vision has been misused in seeking out worthy candidates to come here? How does such an attitude play with business people who clearly understand how misguided and outdated it is?

That makes us look out of touch, out of step and out of it.

So there you have the good, and the bad, about economic development efforts in our county.

Here's the pretty part:  tours of Safeway/Lucerne, Quebecor, Malibu Boats and the Merced Airport revealed hundreds of Mercedians hard at honest labor.  The recession (and, I believe, impending depression) has affected their output, of course.  But it hasn't affected their determination.

Workers and managers we met there are still high on Merced.  High on their jobs.  High on their companies. 

 I came away from those factory tours with renewed faith in the power of good work.

I hope these folks are the ones remembered and bookmarked by potential investors and future businesses.  Not somebody whose outlook has been twisted into a version of globalization no one with common sense or genuine expertise would recognize.

The world may be flat.  Life may be unfair.  But, armed with the right attitude, we can still make it.

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