The Riverside County Economic Development Agency and its Foreign Trade and Cultural Services divisions touch nearly every aspect of desert life. “EDA’s mantra is simple: Increase jobs, wages, and investment in the county,” says Sarah Mundy, assistant director of economic development and cultural services. All are important issues in Riverside County, the state’s fourth largest in both size and population.
The state’s cost of living has complicated EDA’s efforts to put Riverside County on the map. But Mundy suggests the economic quake of the past two years has changed the picture. “Now that workforce housing and land costs have been reset, we’re back on a level playing field — one that allows us to tell people who think the desert would be a glamorous and amazing place to live that it’s once again affordable.”
That puts the Coachella Valley front and center to meet the needs of businesses in search of a place in the sun.
While EDA works with all 27 cities in the county, its initiatives affect almost every dimension of the Coachella Valley economy. “In every contact we make on behalf of the county, we put forth the Coachella Valley’s special-destination status for tourism, its cultural resources, and agricultural wealth,” says Assistant County Executive Officer/EDA Director Rob Field. “We underscore that many communities in the Coachella Valley have maintained good employment rates, which in this period of time is very much a positive.”
EDA houses 23 seemingly disparate departments and divisions under one roof — a boom to efficiency, considering the office oversees some 60 county service areas, fi ve RDA project areas, countless community block grants, libraries, and even streetlights. “We are mindful not only of bricks and mortar, but of things that enrich our lives, the things that make the area attractive to business,” Mundy says.
Attracting foreign direct investment in the Coachella Valley accounts for an appreciable part of EDA’s role, says Commissioner of Foreign Trade Tom Freeman, a former Indian Wells resident. “This can happen only if we help business secure capital.”
He cites Clemmy’s Ice Cream in Rancho Mirage and Polo Square in Indio as businesses that have turned to foreign sources for capital to expand or move forward.
EDA is also pursuing a foreign trade zone designation surrounding Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal — a project championed by Supervisor John Benoit and Board Chairman Marion Ashley.
Field adds, “We’ve developed a fast-track entitlement program that can get any business foreign or domestic through the land use approval process in as little as 90 days.”
And EDA this year signed bilateral trade agreements with Japan and Croatia, the later considered by the World Bank as an emerging high-income country reliant on a 20 percent wind and solar energy source to enter the European Union.
Benoit says these agreements offer opportunities for planned growth and that infrastructure work in unincorporated communities paves the way for these projects. “The construction, for example, of the new Thermal Fire Station adds a new road, water, sewer, and electrical lines, which act as catalysts for further development in the area,” he says.
Attracting business sometimes appears to eclipse the business of sending goods out of the area. However, Riverside County ranks 23rd nationally in exports, valued at $11.5 billion and representing 100,000 jobs. Coachella Valley agricultural, manufacturing, and industrial sections contribute to that success, Freeman says.
The clout and stability encourage EDA to direct redevelopment funds to projects like the Mecca Community Library and Sheriff station, Indio Hills Community Center, Bermuda Dunes Community Service Center, and Mecca Boys and Girls Club.
In addition to enhancing the appeal of desert communities, EDA helps people earn a living here. For example, Field says, “We have recently graduated four classes of people, mostly from the construction industry, who have been retrained in various aspects of alternative energy through Green Training Programs offered through our Workforce Development Division, and we will continue to provide this kind of education so that as inroads are made in the field of solar power — one of the area’s biggest potential for growth sectors — we can put people to work.”
Field acknowledges slow federal and state review for solar initiatives. “We’re not very patient with some things,” he says, “and less so when things are bad … Creating jobs from within becomes more pressing and that’s when we invoke an even more aggressive approach.”
The county works with Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, Coachella Valley Association of Governments, and Coachella Valley Enterprise Zone to shape solutions. “We think regionally,” Mundy says, “and those boots-on-the-ground organizations, along with Supervisors Marion Ashley and John Benoit, are our key stakeholders and cheerleaders.”
“Everyone brings something to the table,” Field adds, “and ultimately what’s good for the valley is good for the county.”