Future’s in entrepreneurs

Local economics experts recommend investing locally over luring new businesses

When Prem Chand needed to open a new branch of his IT infrastructure company, Milestone Technologies, he considered a number of locations before choosing Chico.

Back then, in 2012, Boise, Idaho, ranked high on his list of sites, as did Omaha, Neb. With his business headquartered in the Bay Area, he also weighed San Luis Obispo.

Ultimately, as he told several hundred businesspeople and local leaders gathered in Oroville last Thursday (Jan. 14) for the 16th annual North State Economic Forecast Conference, “my roots brought me back.”

Chand grew up in Butte County, in a farming family, moving to Silicon Valley at age 21. He retains an attachment to the North State, which he pointed out is just “three hours away” from his Bay Area home—“45 minutes by plane,” a testament to his success.

Was the decision that simple? Did sentimentality rule the day? And, by extension, does that mean Chico, or the North State in general, has its best chance at luring lucrative businesses only from prodigal sons and daughters?

Not entirely, Chand told the CN&R after his public remarks. Building upon themes expressed by himself and others throughout the morning, Chand explained that Chico and the region have quantifiable assets that even a detached CEO would find attractive.

“We have some pretty big companies in the North State that weren’t here three, four, five years ago,” he said. “It’s like way back when, when McDonald’s would put up a [restaurant] and, guess what, Burger King put up one across the street. [Companies] want to go to these places, but they want to make sure they have the resources behind it, the infrastructure behind it, and it’s going to be able to grow in scale.

“So there’s an opportunity; it just has to be packaged incredibly well.”

Resources include the available workforce, which applies to all commercial sectors. Infrastructure demands can vary by industry: While broadband connectivity (not omnipresent in the North State) is vital for Internet-linked ventures, for instance, transportation corridors (ample here) are crucial for manufacturing and agriculture.

North State officials are not alone in trumpeting a location as great for business. Beyond the options Chand identified, he also shared that Tacoma, Wash., has been wooing Bay Area tech companies via print advertisements.

Locally, economic development officers for years have been selling the same bill of goods: Chico has the university, the region has natural beauty, cost of living and housing is low relative to metro areas, etc.

Things have changed, though, and are changing. The local business scene has undergone an evolution, including the track record Chand referenced. Workforce development has increased through ventures such as The Training Place at Butte College, which not only offers vocational education but also professional certifications for university graduates, such as customer service, computers and human-resources compliance.

Chand, offering a candid glimpse into the corporate mindset, affirmed the strong case that differentiates this place from others.

“There’s got to be a brand put to it,” he quickly continued. “It’s got to be defined, it’s got to be visible, and you’ve got to be able to explain it.”

Stimulating economic growth represents a local concern, particularly in challenging times. Based on projections shared at the conference by Dr. Robert Eyler from Sonoma State’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, the North State faces moderate prospects. Eyler broke down financial trends globally, nationally, statewide and by North State county before looking ahead to 2016.

Dan Ripke, director of Chico State’s Center for Economic Development (CED), which hosted the event, summarized Eyler’s analysis as “maybe some slower growth coming in the near term but that overall the California and U.S. economy is fairly healthy, and we’re just seeing instability in overseas markets and oil prices.”

Bringing in outside businesses dominated forum discussions, but the CED actually advocates a different model of development: incubating ventures from local entrepreneurs.

“For the last 30 years, we’ve always believed that the community with the best education and best talent would succeed the most,” Ripke said. “Fact is, attraction efforts—incentives, tax breaks, whatever they may be—are ephemeral because eventually those cost factors of the business are going to drive the business out again. The place that invests the most into their people … is always going to attract the most companies, the most jobs.”

Education is something the North State boasts. Along with the traditional tracks at Chico State and Butte College, job-oriented enrichment has taken off at The Training Place, which partners with employers to offer over 200 programs based on demand. The center serves about 5,000 trainees a year.

“I think we have really good talent readiness in a lot of industries,” said Annie Rafferty, director of The Training Place. “We’re poised to respond, and we’re continuing to grow.”