Picture different players in the local economy — businesses, labor unions, lenders, community advocates, entrepreneurs — pursuing a common vision for creating jobs that offer decent wages and opportunities for advancement.
There would be new collaborations and focused investment in the most promising fields as groups that rarely cooperated in the past suddenly join forces on the road to shared prosperity.
Now comes an announcement that this process, led by prominent think tank the Brookings Institution and funded in large part by the state, has been underway in Kern County since spring.
An effort known as B3K, short for a Better Bakersfield & Boundless Kern, has brought together a local coalition of unprecedented diversity to write a new chapter in the region's economic development.
Organizers say the effort stemmed from a recognition that the two pillars on which Kern's economy is built, oil and ag, have been buffeted by state-level regulatory changes and unfavorable market conditions. Even in normal times, however, the fortunes of these two commodity-based sectors fluctuate according to global prices. Plus, in farming, wages tend to be low with little room for social mobility.
People involved in B3K say energy and agriculture would likely remain key drivers of local employment, but that if all goes to plan there would also be new collaboration within and across sectors. The idea is to build on existing resources, minimizing competition for local resources and maximizing production of goods and services for sale outside the region.
"You always want to build off the DNA of a region," Brookings senior fellow Marek Gootman said. "You cannot create whole new industries or sectors out of nothing."
If this sounds like yet another economic development report destined for a dusty shelf in the library, consider that Brookings' research-based approach has led to broad consensus, new investment and renewed hope in Fresno and dozens of other cities and regions across the country.
Gootman said the initiative is different from the region's previous economic development initiatives in that the emphasis isn't on employment totals and business recruitment. Rather, success will be measured in terms of sustainable growth of jobs that allow people to become self-sufficient and socially mobile, he said.
Within months, there's to be a detailed economic assessment put together and updated locally. That's expected to lead to a strategic plan by next spring, along with an operational blueprint and governing structure.
Initial implementation would include a hunt for corporate and government investment. That phase is proposed to begin next spring and continue for at least four years.
The cost of getting started has been estimated at $871,175. The city of Bakersfield has contributed $83,175 and the county of Kern has put in $100,000, while the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce and local philanthropic organizations have pitched in a combined $238,000, with much of that money coming in the form of staff time.
The lion's share — $463,000 — came from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office. The director of his Office of Planning and Research noted in an emailed statement the money came from discretionary workforce development funds set aside to assist specific workplace and economic development strategies.
"This investment reflects the administration's commitment to supporting regional voices and recognition that California is simply too big for a one-size-fits-all approach to economic development," Director Kate Gordon wrote.
She added that the governor's 2019-20 budget initiated a plan for $165 million to be invested over five years to prepare workers in regions, such as oil-heavy Kern, expected to be damaged by state government's stated goal of transitioning to a carbon neutral future.
‘FULL OF EXCITEMENT’
People recruited to join B3K's various committees speak in glowing terms of the effort's diverse and collaborative spirit.
"The tone of the meetings is full of excitement," said Amy Thelen, vice president of downtown software hub Bitwise Bakersfield. Also impressive, she added, is that meetings are not led by outside consultants, for the most part, but by local business owners and public servants. "This is, I think, a really exciting time for the community."
Scott O'Neil, executive director of the Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Corp. in eastern Kern, said he's encouraged by the effort, which he said was the only such undertaking he's been involved with that spans the breadth of the county.
Particularly hopeful for him is the notion that B3K will attempt to integrate the economic strengths of the county's eastern portion, which is more focused on aerospace, defense and mining, and the western reaches, where oil and ag dominate.
"I think that (integration) is an imperative for the future of the county," he said. "We've got a lot of assets and opportunity that I don't think have been really looked at in a holistic fashion or in a strategic perspective."
A different kind of integration also evident in B3K — inclusion of diverse community voices — is of bigger interest to Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of environmental justice advocacy organization the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, which has offices in Kern and the Bay Area.
CRPE has often found itself in opposition to actions taken by major players in local oil, agriculture and county government. Although Brostrom noted her group's opportunities for input so far have been limited, she said the organization is committed to helping find a sustainable path to economic equity, especially for local residents who have historically been left out of such discussions.
"Hopefully we will be able to have a united front as we seek new investment, new industry sectors and try to make sure everyone is at the table," Brostrom said.
An executive with Berry Corp. said the local oil producer is pleased to be included in the conversation, partly because it has been able to show itself a community partner anxious to help the state achieve energy independence.
Executive Vice President Megan Silva, who serves on B3K's energy committee, said the effort represents a real chance to diversify the local economy. That might include an opportunity to tap the oil industry's technical prowess in support of expanding local renewable energy production, she said.
"Either we step up right now and diversify and put a plan together on how we're going to do it," she said, "or we don't and you're going to continue to see hardship and people move out."
Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary C. Barlow sees B3K as fitting well with an effort being undertaken across local school districts. It's called the Kern Education Pledge and it, too, seeks to achieve widespread engagement and measurable progress through shared development of standards, accountability and regular communication.
Barlow said she expects B3K to better align education with the needs of emerging industries, thereby improving social mobility and with it the community's economic, emotional and physical health.
It may also lead to more and better apprenticeships and internships, clearer career pathways and less duplication of efforts using existing resources, she said.
Another aspect of B3K, one that's not often taken under consideration in economic development initiatives, is the potential for highlighting opportunities to spruce up Bakersfield's urban core, said County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop.
Doing so through investment in cultural amenities and landscaping could help attract talented professionals from outside the area, which he noted would benefit local employers.
But also, Alsop said, the collaboration presents a chance to take a "deep dive" and explore data that can be used to make wise decisions about which way to steer the local economy.
He said that at the end of the day, choices coming out of B3K must have the effect of improving the lives of people who live here.
"We've got a lot of challenges," he said, "and we've got to aggressively work together to solve them."
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state the correct name of the person who emailed a statement from the Governor's Office of Planning and Research.