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Politics Interfering With New Tulare Zone

From the Visalia Times-Delta:

Tulare County Board of Supervisors slams Tulare County Economic Development Corp. on rail, tourism and jobs issues

“If the county pulls out, that could threaten establishment of the enterprise zone,” Lane said. “And threatening the enterprise zone would be counterproductive.”

EDC officials say that move would jeopardize the millions in state incentives to businesses in the county’s enterprise zone, which could be in place as soon as July 1. Such designations have been given 42 economically distressed areas of the state by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. They allow businesses in the enterprise zones — which cover only parts of the cities and counties affected — to get tax credits for expanding, opening new businesses, buying equipment or hiring additional workers under certain circumstances.

Supervisor Phil Cox says it’s no secret that the Tulare County Board of Supervisors has a beef with the Tulare County Economic Development Corporation.

In fact, he said, it’s been going on for years.

“Their main function should be to attract jobs to the area and keep jobs here,” he said. “But in some cases, they have moved beyond that — and we think they need to reorganize their priorities.”

An example of that shift, Cox said, is the EDC’s focus on promoting tourism — which the supervisor said has come at the expense of private companies and the county’s own $100,000-a-year effort. Other examples include the EDC billing for its services to help recruit a four-year college to the area and its silence when it comes to efforts to develop a short-line railroad along the eastern edge of the county. The EDC’s president, Paul Saldaña, did not return several calls for comment on this story.

Railroad issue

“[The EDC] should have taken the lead in the railroad,” Cox said. “And, instead, it was left up to the Board of Supervisors and [the Tulare County Association of Governments] to do all of the work developing it. It should have been a partnership in private industry.”

During the last two years, the Tulare County Association of Governments has lobbied in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento for the protection of the 32-mile stretch of railroad track that runs from Exeter to Jovista.

The effort, along with other lobbying efforts, has cost Tulare County taxpayers $74,103.

TCAG is the agency that oversees transportation planning and spending on the county’s half-cent sales tax for road improvements, Measure R.

Supporters of the railroad say it will help lure manufacturers to the area and help keep trucks off the road. Cox said pleas by the county — and Supervisor Allen Ishida particularly — to have the EDC take on a larger role in the railroad’s development fell on deaf ears.

It was hoped that the EDC would act as a public supporter of the line, assist with the lobbying and also help coordinate a shippers association of manufacturers that would use the railroad line and help maintain it, Cox said.

But Mike Lane, a Visalia city councilman who also serves on the EDC board of directors, said EDC officials still had questions about the potential use of Measure R funds to buy right of way, track and signals.

The estimated price for the line could be as low as $1.5 million or as high as $3.5 million.

“There are some cities who have a problem with using Measure R funds for the railroad,” Lane said. “And we still don’t know if the railroad would be economically viable. Is there sufficient business interest in the line? We still don’t know.”

Branding question

The supervisors also have long been critical of the Sequoia Valley branding effort on the part of the EDC.

The moniker, which has been in place for years, was designed to capitalize on the region’s proximity to Sequoia National Park. Instead, Cox, said, it confuses prospective companies because the word “Tulare” doesn’t appear on the promotional material.

“We were never really on board with the Sequoia Valley brand,” Cox said.

Saldaña, the EDC’s president, has also been at the center of county criticism, Cox said, because of what the county considers to be a communication problem between the two entities.

“It seems like we would only hear from him about once a year,” he said. “We have probably not been the best partners ourselves — but the communication just hasn’t been there.”

But now, with $69,000 in membership dues to the EDC on the line, the supervisors and the organization are beginning to talk — but not before the county’s own counteroffer to limit its contribution to $10,000.

“If the county pulls out, that could threaten establishment of the enterprise zone,” Lane said. “And threatening the enterprise zone would be counterproductive.”

EDC officials say that move would jeopardize the millions in state incentives to businesses in the county’s enterprise zone, which could be in place as soon as July 1. Such designations have been given 42 economically distressed areas of the state by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. They allow businesses in the enterprise zones — which cover only parts of the cities and counties affected — to get tax credits for expanding, opening new businesses, buying equipment or hiring additional workers under certain circumstances.

The EDC uses the designation to draw in new businesses and encourage expansion. Previously, those zones were called “business incentive zones,” and parts of the county have had the designation for nearly 15 years.

The supervisors insist that they don’t want to do anything that would halt efforts to establish the enterprise zone.

“We want to do everything we can to help achieve economic prosperity,” Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said. “We don’t want to do anything that’s going to reduce incentives for business -†no one wins there. But during these economic times, it’s important that the county receives the best bang for its buck.”

Cox agreed.

“We’ve had some conversations with the EDC and we’re already beginning to see an improvement,” he said. “But we’ll have to see how it goes.”

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