ORANGE — The idea is to talk about the local economy without whining about it.
When Orange County business, education and government leaders walk out of a summit conference this afternoon, they hope to have a list of steps that can be taken within the next 120 days to fix the county's most pressing economic problems.
"I'm looking forward to the fact that it will be action-oriented," said Harriett M. Wieder, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the visionary behind Partnership 2010, which called the summit meeting. "We will not fill the room with pontification and beating of chests about the different problems."
Partnership 2010 has used its first year in existence to identify the county's barriers to job growth: health care costs, lack of business financing, the government permit process and graduates' lack of preparation for jobs.
Some of the solutions being proposed are bold: a tax to provide a pool of money for new and growing businesses, a one-stop shop for all local and state business permits, a coalition of small to mid-size employers to bargain for lower health insurance rates, and an "employability transcript" stating what type of work a high school graduate is qualified to do.
If the summit's organizers succeed in jump-starting the Orange County economy, they will be the first regional group in the nation to do so.
"We may, in fact, be the model," said Aaron Lovejoy, president of Ultratech Resources in Santa Ana and head of the summit's task force on capital creation.
Timothy J. Cooley, president and executive director of Partnership 2010, said he intends to organize similar summits as needed to "fine-tune" the regional economy.
"The idea is to start the process in motion," he said. "We're showing there's a certain amount of hope. Entrepreneurs go where the action is, and that's something that overcomes the higher cost of being here."
The county's economic plight, summit organizers believe, has unified residents in the desire to help businesses create jobs.
"Very likely the time is right for this," said Scott Diehl, president of the League of California Cities' Orange County division and chairman of the summit task force on business permits. He points out that cities have recently recognized how much business tax revenues mean to them and that city budgets could benefit by eliminating jobs that could be handled by a central permit office.
Today's summit, being held at Chapman University in Orange, is by invitation only. Planning to attend are representatives from Fluor Corp., the Irvine Co., Western Digital Corp., Carl Karcher Enterprises, Southern California Gas Co. and FHP International.
Also signed up are the mayors of several cities, school superintendents, and directors of chambers of commerce and other trade organizations: former Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan, Orange Mayor Gene Beyer, Ho Young Chung from the Korean Chamber of Commerce, Caleb Zia from the Chinese-American Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Supt. of Education John F. Dean and Chapman University President James Doti.
Doti will present population projections into the year 2010 and discuss how those changes might affect housing, schools and health care.
Especially in the public school system, Doti said, "I don't think anyone has faced up to the implications. Everyone is looking to next year's class. We need to look at how we'll restructure things on a longer-term basis to relieve the pressures."
The ultimate goal of Partnership 2010, Cooley said, is to replace high-wage jobs that are being eliminated by the slump in defense spending and manufacturing. Each high-wage job, he said, creates three to six more jobs--in real estate sales, restaurants and other services.
Companies that are easy on the environment and unlikely to be lured away by cheap labor in Asia or Mexico are also desirable, Cooley said. His group has targeted the biomedical, transportation and environmental industries.
He concedes that there is not a depressed area in the nation that would not like to invite those companies into its back yard. Massachusetts and Silicon Valley have "the same shopping list, but nobody is willing to take the next step," Cooley said. "The idea dies at that point because they're handing it to a bunch of bureaucrats who have never started a business."
In some areas, there are successful models, however. Health care costs have been reduced in Rochester, N.Y., and in Hawaii. In Rochester, an employer coalition bargained to cut costs, and they are now 25% to 33% lower than the national average, said Greg Bishop, president of Business Health Solutions, an Irvine consulting company. He chairs the summit's committee on health care cost competitiveness.
By contrast, Orange County residents pay 120% of the national average.
Bishop's suggestions at today's summit will include an old-fashioned plea for personal responsibility, he said: "We all should be taking better care of ourselves and be less willing to take advantage of services we're not paying for."