Kosmicki: Our inside-out approach to commerce

Hannah Vass, 7, works to carry a watermelon to the car with the help of her parents Audy and Sandy, from Hollister, in 2013 during the grand opening event of Market 25, Uesugi Farms produce Market off Highway 25.

Getting out of town a few days, reality hit me like a dirty ice ball to the face: We’re totally off base with our approach to commercial growth in San Benito County, and the Recession Clock is ticking while the broader economic recovery possibly winds to a close.
Traveling across Central Wisconsin where much of my family now lives—through a series of mostly blue-collar towns in the Fox Cities known as “Paper Valley”—there were simple, yet forbidden, offerings that immediately yanked for my attention.
In or within a short drive from my family’s home of Neenah (population, 25,000) was a seemingly endless range of local and chain restaurants, hip coffee shops with brick interior walls and jazz keeping everyone on their friendliest behavior, locally inspired cafés touting organic ingredients, art galleries and museums, a performing arts center, a couple of indoor-outdoor gaming centers where children could spend entire days in Virtual Kid Heaven, places to go-kart or mini golf, recently constructed downtown office spaces shining like fine jewelry, and streets that didn’t make cars rumble like wooden roller coasters.
Little-old Neenah had multiple roundabouts. And a Walmart, and a Kohl’s, and a host of chain shops that felt like part of the local fabric rather than a Wall Street invasion, à la Gilroy.
There wasn’t anything spectacular about this Midwestern town, though. Like anywhere, it had faults.
For someone used to California, it was cold enough at times for shivers, even in late March, and the only oceanside was on a globe. As for demographics in census data, household incomes are slightly higher in Neenah than in Hollister, and there’s much less ethnic diversity (96 percent white) there. People still routinely smoked cigarettes on sidewalks, even right outside the doors at a local children’s gaming center.
We can’t underestimate such cultural differences, or disadvantages here such as less discretionary income due to largely unaffordable mortgages and rent, in a local economy’s complex puzzle. Still, the entire time in Wisconsin, I couldn’t grasp how a city like Hollister, in a hotbed region for economic development and tourism, where million-dollar homes are down the cul-de-sac and behind the local school, had fallen so far behind a place where polar bears would feel cozy three months of the year.
Sometimes it takes getting away to see things clearly, and sometimes it takes coming back, too.
Driving home toward Hollister across the two-lane, paved bridge separating San Benito County from the rest of the world—Highway 25—the realization surfaced:
Local government and business leaders have long viewed our geographic isolation—and 15-minute drive off the bustling interstate—as an economic detriment. I’m now convinced that this highway, especially at the entry point just over the county line, could eventually cure our economic ills and lay a firm groundwork for the more sensible outward-in approach to commercial development as opposed to the inward-out philosophy largely accepted locally for decades.
So why outward-in, and what do I mean by that?
Although government officials and Average Schmoes like myself can’t force property owners or developers into anything with their resources, this approach would entail encouraging and incentivizing commercial growth at all of the gateway entrances into the county, but especially—and I mean especially—at Highway 25. From there, ideally, commercial growth would occur from those gateway points—along major thoroughfares—inward toward the city core while nudging closer to other locally promoted destinations such as the wine trail, Pinnacles National Park and Hollister Hills.
So what are the benefits?
Most poignant, this is about capitalizing on outside traffic, at which we’re currently failing miserably. Ask yourself: Past what areas of the county, after all, do tens of thousands of vehicles pass every day? Hint: It’s not the Paicines General Store. Highway 101 provides a wealth of untapped potential, but vehicles rarely get off to spend money in San Benito County because we don’t offer a reason.
Most busy Bay Area and Central Coast residents aren’t driving 15 or 20 minutes out of the way for conveniences or a quick bite to eat. Why not bring those conveniences, restaurants, recreational stops and whatever else we can develop right to them?
At the least, promoting commerce near 101 would bolster local economic activity in an area with nearly none, prevent leakage to Gilroy and other surrounding communities, and give thousands of local commuters a reason to spend more of their money at home.
Ideally, the plan’s initial success would trigger a domino effect of interest and lay groundwork for a natural outward-in development progression toward Hollister’s core. If San Benito County’s people want to pursue true economic revitalization, after all, then local leaders have to start thinking seriously about ways to draw traffic from Highway 101. Government officials and business executives are so wrapped up trying to figure out how to develop a local commercial sector from within, they’re neglecting the fact that everyone on the outside just keeps driving on by. In other words, we built our doorstep on the wrong side of the property, so why not pick it up and move it near the roadside where it belongs?
How do we get it right?
Since this is America, property rights limit outsiders’ influence on specific parcels. Broadly, though, certain options are worth exploring to designate a particular area as open for commercial business.
For instance, government officials could consider approaching the state about the prospect of Caltrans handing over the current Highway 25 and re-designating it as a county road. Where and how close in proximity the state or local entities would build a new Highway 25, or an aligning commuter highway, would entail an entirely different discussion. Owning the road would give local officials direct say on how land develops around the highway without worrying about California headaches.
Another option is to engage Gilroy officials to see if they’re interested in partnering on forming an incentive program for prospective developers of major amusement parks or water parks at or near the Santa Clara/San Benito County border.
Locally, as another alternative, elected officials could explore what it takes to create an entertainment district—near 101—designated for clusters of possible attractions such as an amusement park, an aquatics facility, sports venues, performing arts halls, music auditoriums, shopping centers, movie theaters, animal sanctuaries, a Pinnacles National Park-sponsored satellite zoo, go kart or mini-golf centers, or even an actual race track.
Before having so much fun, though, government officials would have to swallow their pride and admit they just made a huge mistake on the recently approved General Plan that would need amending to reflect heavy promotion of commerce along 25 near 101. As that zoning and planning document now stands, almost the entire stretch of 25 from the county line to Hollister is designated as one of four “study areas” for new communities—which is code for Carefully Planned Sprawl. Plopping a 5,000- or 10,000-home planned community near Highway 101 would cut off Hollister from all that regional traffic and suffocate the city’s long-term economic prospects—like swallowing a sausage whole when nobody in the room knows the Heimlich.
Another way to ease possible developers’ anxieties about the area is to guarantee fast-track permitting. It’s a tall task for a county planning department that’s used to letting projects sit on the shelf for half of a kangaroo rat’s lifetime, but elected officials could implement a program that moves new commercial and industrial projects to the top of the staff’s priority list.
Because costs for such permitting and government reviews can add up so quickly, perhaps local leaders could establish a partnership—with public, private and nonprofit interests involved—to help offset permitting review costs for projects that bring specific benefits to the community.
Because we’re all still neighbors, any interest in such a gateway transformation would require face-to-face talks involving development interests and support from local landowners. Once that occurs, if it does, officials could identify a catalyst property owner, developer and project to get things moving.
That’s about where the Economic Development Corporation of San Benito County should come into play. This community desperately needs the EDC to get its act together soon. The floundering organization, viewed by the outside world as a primary recruitment arm for new industry here, must do something bold soon or else get out of the way so someone else can do it.

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