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Mapping the future: County pours $300,000 into private sector led Hourglass Project 

Local governments tend to write a lot of plans. Cities and counties have general plans, infrastructure plans, housing plans, economic plans, master plans, and more.

But merely having a blueprint doesn't necessarily guarantee the outcome it envisions. Sometimes a plan can sit on the proverbial shelf, collecting dust, while the problem it's supposed to solve persists. And when communities have different plans over one broader region, they don't always commingle in a way that works for the whole.

This is what local business leaders helming the Hourglass Project say they've seen happen on the Central Coast too often—and hope they can help change.

"I think it starts with talking with each other," Hourglass Project CEO Melissa James told New Times. "It starts with developing a common vision and identity."

Born last year out of shared concern for the future of the Central Coast economy, the private sector-led nonprofit has ambitions to craft a comprehensive economic plan for the region that can actually achieve the lofty goals it sets—whether it's in job growth, housing, infrastructure, or policy.

"We're going to try to bring together the region's thought leaders to envision the kind of future we want to see," said James, who previously headed the SLO Chamber of Commerce. "When you stand around and talk about the challenges you face, you just kind of get stuck with the repeat button. Our goal is to move the region forward and get beyond the challenges."

San Luis Obispo County wants to help them do it. On April 23, county supervisors voted to grant $300,000 to aid the Hourglass Project in creating a Central Coast Jobs Roadmap and Action Plan. The grant was pulled out of a $3.8 million pool of PG&E ratepayer monies given to the county through Senate Bill 1090 to address Diablo Canyon Power Plant closure impacts.

James called the Central Coast Jobs Roadmap and Action Plan a first step for the coalition that will essentially outline: what jobs are already on the Central Coast (from Camp Roberts to Vandenberg Air Force Base), what jobs are desired, how many are needed, where they should be located, and when they should arrive.

"The action plan is the strategic first step," James explained. "These aren't things you do overnight. They take a lot of intention and thought, and a lot of collaboration, to achieve."

Included as part of the plan will be intensive conversations with businesses, local government leaders, and the public—and a survey of 800 residents. The plan will then identify areas of opportunities for various industries, what obstacles are in the way for them to succeed, and a "go-forward plan." It will also involve the creation of a new interactive database to visualize the region's economy and help map its assets/constraints in relation to infrastructure, housing, zoning, and more.

The overall idea, James said, is to think about the Central Coast more regionally—to cultivate a sense of cohesion and identity among the disparate communities to tackle problems and plan solutions. Getting on the same page would help the region compete for state and federal dollars to fund large, game-changing infrastructure projects, from transportation to water, she added.

"You think about our region—it's 12 cities and two counties," James said. "Any given Tuesday, that's 70 elected officials making decisions about their individual communities. ... It's weaving those things together into a larger regional picture. It's a new picture."

The Hourglass Project's aim is to serve as the engine and coordinator of these efforts. Its board of directors includes well known area CEOs like Ty Safreno of Trust Automation and Clint Pearce of Madonna Enterprises, as well as chambers of commerce heads and other economic organization leaders.

James said the project's success ultimately hinges on full participation from the communities, from Paso Robles to Santa Maria.

"It's not mandated. It's a volunteer sport," she said. "It requires people being bought-in and partnering and working to achieve a common vision."

SLO County officials said they see the Hourglass Project as a worthy recipient of some of its precious Diablo Canyon closure mitigation money.

"In the meetings I've been part of, the kinds of things I'm hearing suggest they actually do have the people in a room who can put together a plan that I think the community needs," County Assistant Administrative Officer Guy Savage said. "We've tried to do this with a local government-led approach; it's often difficult for us. ... With them driving it, that's a much better model." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at

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