Although the national economy and unemployment numbers have seen slight improvements this year, in much of California, prosperity is still elusive.
At 11.7 percent, California’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. Many small business owners are struggling to keep their doors open, and some factories are hampered by daunting state regulations and rules.
“Today, it’s not so sunny in California; it’s not the Golden State anymore,” Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, said Wednesday just before the start of a business summit at the Solyndra solar panel factory in Fremont.
Wieckowski, who represents the 20th Assembly District in the California State Legislature, was in town to kick off a new “Made in California Jobs Initiative” program. The plan is to revitalize California’s economy through targeted incentives, streamlining government and investing in emerging technologies such as clean energy, biotech and medical research.
Wednesday’s summit focused on a roundtable discussion with local business owners, industry leaders and government officials designed to solicit ideas for ramping up the local economy and bringing new jobs to the community.
“I want to hear directly from business leaders about their issues and concerns so we can provide the proper incentives to create jobs and grow our economy,” Wieckowski said.
Among the panelists were Sen. Art Torres (Ret.), vice-chairman of the board at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine; Dennis Cima, senior vice-president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; Lupe Lopez, president and owner of Arteaga’s Food Center in Newark; Clint Severson, CEO at Abaxis in Union City, Diarmuid O’Connell, vice-president of business development at TESLA Motors in Fremont and Ben Bierman, vice president of operations and engineering at Solyndra in Fremont.
Other panelists included representatives from the business, education and medical technology industries. The summit, which was open to the public, attracted more than 100 people who filled a large conference room.
Panelists shared a flood of frustrations over state business regulations, loan guarantees, taxes and healthcare issues and shared ideas about how to fix problems.
Cima, with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said predictability and sustainability are important factors the state lacks in its operations, including business taxes. “We need predictability in California. Places like Silicon Valley thrive, but we can’t do it without some degree of predictability.”
Abaxis, a medical products company that makes point-of-care blood analysis systems in Union City, was attracted to California because of the ability to recruit good people, according to CEO Clint Severson. But, he noted, tough state regulations make it difficult to operate the company efficiently. “The regulation here is unbelievable,” Severson said, to strong audience applause, “High taxes and high regulations are major challenges.”
Small business owners also face challenges because tough rules.
Lupe Lopez, owner and president of Arteaga’s Food Center in Newark says it’s hard to get money to update or expand her neighborhood grocery business. Lopez said that when applying for loans, lenders look at her personal assets rather than the business value in making their decision. “They should look at the business, not a person’s personal assets,” she said. “As a small business owner, woman and a minority, having no access to capital is one of the challenges I have to overcome.”
But not all news on the local front is gloomy.
TESLA Motors’ Diarmuid O’Connell said Fremont was the best site for his electric car manufacturing company because much of the infrastructure was already in place in the old NUMMI plant. “We were going to do our project elsewhere. We looked at Sacramento, New Mexico. But they had nothing in the toolbox.” He said TESLA plans to build cars in Fremont for a long time.
Wieckowski said the summit, which was co-sponsored by the Fremont, Union City, Newark and Milpitas Chambers of Commerce, was just the first step in a plan to revitalize the local and state economy.
He is forming a new Economic Development Advisory Council to help run the program. Wieckowski also plans to tour businesses in his district which covers Fremont, Newark, Union City and parts of Pleasanton, Castro Valley, Hayward, Milpitas and San Jose.