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Coachella Valley Welcomes New Manager

The Desert Sun published the following profile of the new Coachella Valley Enterprise Zone manager who replaces Hal Joseph:

It’s been a whirlwind first week for Mark Weber as manager of the Coachella Valley Enterprise Zone.

He got a full briefing on a controversial overhaul of California’s enterprise zone program that’s looming in the Senate.

He networked with state and regional lawmakers at the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership’s legislative lunch one day, and manned a booth at the Urban Land Institute’s full-day conference in Palm Springs the next.

Not one to hunker at a desk, Weber is all about outreach and building relationships.

“I want to make sure we’re involving all the primary players — all the partners,” he said. “Everyone has a stake in the valley, has special roles and needs to play their unique part to shape it.

“Whether it’s CVEP, individual cities, (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) or advisory committees, we all have a unique role to play to bring economic change to the valley.”

He’s no rookie to the area, either.

Weber is an Orange County native and UCLA grad who made his mark with the defense contractor TRW, Hughes Aircraft and the Orangeburg Public Utility in South Carolina before he moved to the desert to work for the Imperial Irrigation District six years ago.

He also has been credited for efforts to keep the nearly shuttered Coachella Chamber of Commerce open and grow its membership to nearly 200.

He served on the advisory board of the enterprise zone for five years, held an office on the executive board of CVEP and was a founding member of the Coachella Valley East Rotary Club.

“I’ve gotten to know the area and understand how important the role of an enterprise zone is,” he said. “We’ve got areas here with high unemployment. We have areas where a lot of diverse, economic development can still occur.”
Wide experience

Tapping his experience while in South Carolina as a councilman in the town of Cordova, a term as a trustee of a 286-bed regional hospital, his work to recruit industrial projects to a 450-acre industrial park, and involvement with a entity similar in concept to CVEP called “The Partnership,” Weber said he intends to apply all his skills to promote business retention, recruitment, growth and job creation in the 52-square-mile enterprise zone.

Marketing will be key, as well, for the 36,000-plus-acre site that takes in Thousand Palms, Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca, he said.

Key businesses and development pieces include Ernie Ball Co., Coca-Cola, rail, transit hubs and the Jacqueline Cochrane Regional Airport.

“The enterprise zone’s state and local government partnership alone can save millions of dollars for businesses located within its boundaries,” he said.

Weber said the Senate Bill that proposes eliminating a hiring tax credit for business by a lawmaker who wants to substitute it for a new tax credit for vocational training is on his radar and will be a focal point of debate and action in the days and weeks to come.

SB 974, if adopted and signed into law, would give businesses similar credits to create job- training programs.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

Weber, who replaces Hal Joseph, said he plans to set business recruitment, retention, jobs and employer hiring credit voucher as goals. The voucher program will continue to be an emphasis of the zone.

“We just landed Target,” he said. “That will be a big win because there are so many businesses near Jackson Avenue, like Target, that have been hit hard because of the home foreclosure activity around them. Hiring credit programs like these will help them withstand that.”

The hiring credit program helped businesses in the enterprise zone save a combined $41 million on their state taxes in 2009, alone, allowing businesses to invest in their employees and community in a tough economic time.

A total of 3,289 vouchers were issued by the agency that year; each voucher represents state tax credits of up to $37,440 over a five-year period.
Business goals

Diversifying business is another goal, Weber said, as expressed Thursday in the land planning conference by speakers who included CVEP operations director Wes Ahlgren and Noble & Co. chief operating officer Fred Bell.

Their message was the region can’t rely on agriculture and tourism alone.

“It needs light manufacturing and industrial distribution,” Weber said. “The way to do that is to have a regional approach to give people incentive to come to the areas that are underserved.”

The Public Policy Institute of California just released a report that called the enterprise zone program ineffective and costly: It takes roughly a half-billion dollars a year to run the programs.

Enterprise zones remain one of few tools left in the state to recruit business and growth in certain areas, Weber said, as they offer tax credits on capital investment and machinery, incentives to lending institutions and accelerated depreciation.

“The valley is doing a lot of good things, especially with its focus on education, but the tax incentive side is a piece of the tool kit that is very important and has to remain intact,” he said.

In the near term, Weber said he intends to work regionally with all the entities in the zone on available land, planning that’s already under way and the infrastructure that needs to get in place for future gains.

Industry sectors he plans to aim for include wind, solar, geothermal, logistics, assembly and light manufacturing.

Asked if there were any major projects on the runway, Weber reserved discussion for now and recapped the position noted in the conference: Small business is what’s going to drive the recovery now.

“Until small business is healthy and continues to grow, it will be hard for investors to make significant moves,” he said.

On the initiative by Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs to create an enterprise zone on the west side of the Coachella Valley, Weber said opportunities to expand economic growth potential is positive for the region.

There are two enterprise zones in Imperial County now, he said, and added: “The valley economy should be seen as one region.”

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