Business leaders lose confidence in Merced Board of Supervisors

MERCED — Business leaders are taking aim at the Merced County Board of Supervisors.

In a draft letter obtained by the Merced Sun-Star, several chamber of commerce presidents are set to sign a "letter of non-confidence" in the county's economic development programs, permitting processes and planning programs.

"For too many years Merced County leadership has invested millions of dollars on economic development strategies and competing agencies that have not produced the promised results: jobs and smart growth," the letter states.

The Merced County Chamber of Commerce's Roundtable membership, which represents some 3,000 businesses in Merced County, voted to draft the letter at its Oct. 27 meeting.

Mark Hendrickson, the county's director of commerce, aviation and economic development, said he was surprised by the letter and that county officials weren't invited to speak to the roundtable about their concerns before the letter was drafted.

He said the county is doing things to spur economic development, including creating more enterprise zones, counseling for small businesses in areas such as Delhi and competing for a state grant that would designate the former Castle Air Force Base as an "Innovation Hub" where entrepreneurs could gather to form and build small businesses.

Katie Albertson, county spokeswoman, said the county is taking many of the steps the chambers are asking for, such as speedier permitting through the preliminary application review process, which allows a panel to make some planning decisions more quickly.

"We understand that prospective businesses need projects to be approved quickly," Albertson said.

Dealing with recession

The changes Albertson described are coming before cash-strapped local governments throughout the San Joaquin Valley. They're looking for ways to encourage economic development in spite of the recession.

Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff has been implementing some business-friendly adjustments to make City Hall more responsive to customers. The city also is initiating a process to review its development fees.

The Merced letter's signatories argue that the county's economic development organizations are cumbersome, that a planned one-stop permitting center was stalled and that a proposal to bank land for future specific uses was never taken seriously by administrative officials.

Roundtable members are asking for information about the proposed one-stop permitting center, plans for improving the county planning department, and an overview of plans to attract businesses and employers.

Julius Pekar, chief executive officer of the Merced County chamber, said Monday that a final version of the letter had been approved and signed by "75 percent" of the chambers in Merced County.

He declined to release the final version but said it was "a little softer with more openness at the end about meeting with the county," he said.

A draft had demanded county leadership respond to Steve Gallichio, chairman of the Merced County Chambers of Commerce Roundtable by Dec. 6.

Hendrickson became the head of economic development for the county a year ago. He was president of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce about five years ago. He said it was a "privilege to lead that organization," which is a "long-valued leader" in business here.

Merced County ranks at neither the top nor the bottom when it comes to leading economic indicators in the Central Valley, according to a recent report.