This column was contributed by San Benito Live founder and San Benito County Supervisor District 2 candidate Kollin Kosmicki. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
One pandemic-induced lifestyle change that can significantly benefit San Benito County over the long term is a heightened consumer reliance on outdoor recreation and culture.
The Great Outdoors happen to be San Benito County’s No. 1 asset, and our community can reap permanent economic rewards by capitalizing on this new reality in a COVID-19 world. Considering our centralized proximity in the region and the beauty of our vast open spaces, San Benito County has always had great potential when it comes to outdoor recreation and cultural offerings.
Historically, we haven’t done nearly enough to make tourism a top priority in our approach to economic development and fiscal sustainability. Now is the time to finally do it.
As everyone around here knows, we have a plethora of recreational gems such as Pinnacles National Park, Fremont Peak, De Anza National Trail and Hollister Hills, to name a few. We have unique historic destinations like San Juan Bautista, Tres Pinos and New Idria. We have campgrounds, RV parks, dream wedding venues, organic farm stands, hunting getaways, fishing holes, wineries, breweries and golf courses. We have a fledgling arts scene and family-friendly operations like Swank Farms.
In other words, we have a lot to offer outside visitors, particularly those interested in day trips and weekend getaways. We also happen to have millions of people—many of them well off with money to spend—within driving distance of our community.
This is all part of why I’m proposing that San Benito County work with other jurisdictions and nonprofit organizations to devise a tourism plan that is much more aggressive and serious than the current approach. That should start with establishing a more robust and focused tourism bureau—one that is independent from the membership-driven, staffing-strapped San Benito County Chamber of Commerce. We should work collaboratively to invest in a professional tourism bureau that is focused solely on one thing: tourism.
The good thing is, a renewed focus on tourism doesn’t have to be overly complicated because there are plenty of good examples nearby—such as the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz—to follow. Sure, we don’t have an ocean in our backyard, but that’s also what makes our particular brand of offerings unique if we can learn how to appropriately market these destinations.
At the forefront of this approach, it’s imperative that we fully establish San Benito County as the “Gateway to Pinnacles National Park.” We should brand ourselves as such and take back the moniker from Soledad, which was clever enough to call itself the gateway despite the fact that the vast majority of visitors enter the national park from our county while driving through Hollister, San Juan, Tres Pinos and Paicines along the way—jurisdictions that are leaving tourism dollars on the table by failing to market the Pinnacles experience.
We were handed a glorious gift when former Congressman Sam Farr worked hard to establish Pinnacles as a national park in 2013, and we’ve since acted as if this monumental economic opportunity doesn’t exist.
Speaking of untapped potential, the situation with San Justo Reservoir’s closure for the past dozen years due a mussel infestation has become painfully surreal, and seemingly hopeless, due to a lack of strong leadership. Our county’s leaders must demand a firm plan from the federal government—with firm timelines—to get San Justo opened to the public as soon as possible. Simultaneously, I recommend we explore other opportunities for water-based recreation such as developing a manmade lake and/or establishing another reservoir for public access.
As the pandemic has shown us, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped people from seeking out recreation, particularly outdoors. It’s very likely this trend will become a permanent fixture of society, which begs the question about local tourism efforts: If not now, then when?
Of course, economic development efforts shouldn’t, and can’t, stop with tourism. That is why I’ve compiled a list of other specific ideas to improve the local economy while preserving our rural character and open spaces.
Expand EDC Investment with Metrics
Local leaders have done a good job revitalizing the Economic Development Corporation of San Benito County. The county smartly used a portion of business license tax revenue toward a major boost in funding to the EDC, chamber and other groups. But we also need to see implementation of formalized, tangible metrics to measure these groups’ progress and create incentives for real improvements. The county and partners should establish milestones for the EDC in particular that equate to larger taxpayer investments over time with positive results.
Focus on Infill Development
The county’s general plan—a guide for growth from 2015 to 2035—is severely flawed in that it expressly promotes sprawl development. There is no other way to describe 16 commercial zones, or nodes as the county calls them, dotted throughout unincorporated San Benito County. Many of these nodes such as the four along Highway 101 are miles from a city core, which is the antithesis of true smart growth. The county should work with the city of Hollister in particular to incentivize and promote infill commercial and industrial development. There is ample space for such growth within the city of Hollister, such as over 1,500 acres of available industrial zoning. Building massive developments far from a city, its services and infrastructure inherently creates other problems—such as increased pollution—and costly new infrastructure needs. It also diminishes a sense of community and will do nothing to help enhance our brand as an outdoor getaway with rural character.
Examine Reduced Impact Fees, Streamlined Planning
With the help of the EDC, the county should develop a structured incentive program for new or expanding businesses whose developments are consistent with smart growth philosophies. This could include a break on impact fees or streamlined planning—so long as it doesn’t circumvent proper environmental reviews, especially on large projects—as ways to promote business growth. County leaders would need to iron out details for requirements, but I would support such mandates for applicants as providing credible business plans outlining growth prospects, a minimum number of jobs created and use of local contractors. With regard to impact fees, taking a short-term hit is well worth the investment if it amounts to long-term, sustainable job growth and tax revenue.
Historic San Juan Bautista and downtown Hollister deserve more collaboration-based attention from the county because it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep these merchant districts in good economic health.
Hollister and San Juan are under jurisdictions of the two city councils, and I wouldn’t want to step on their toes in any way. But I would prefer to see a cooperative approach between the cities and county to explore prospects for Opportunity Zones or a localized version of Redevelopment Areas.
Downtown Hollister took a big hit with the state’s dissolution of the RDA program eight years ago that provided incentives for affordable housing and mixed-use development, and those are two of the biggest needs for areas like Hollister and San Juan.
Having vibrant downtowns, after all, is a crucial component for a community like ours if we want to create a culture-oriented, dynamic environment. If anything, improved promotion of the downtowns should be a key focus of the local tourism program.
Explore Potential for Aquatic Center
There is extraordinary demand, from what I can tell, for a public aquatic center in San Benito County. San Benito High School recently finished its own aquatic center with taxpayer bond funds. Unfortunately, wider public access is severely limited because it’s a closed campus. Such an endeavor would be quite costly, but perhaps the cities and county can collaborate to this end as well and find a way to get it done. At the very least, I would like to start discussions and explore funding opportunities.
Multifamily Housing Near Commercial Centers
While San Benito County residents clearly want more commercial options, our community also needs a lot more multifamily housing to meet local demand and provide a wider variety of housing stock. I’ve already proposed a housing plan that encourages multifamily and affordable housing. At the same time, such housing should be placed near commercial centers and within walking distance to other amenities. This would allow easier access for residents and provide regular customers for local businesses.
Hotels Near Attractions, Economic Core
San Benito County definitely needs more hotels and should make it a recruitment priority when it comes to the EDC and zoning. I’d like to see local governments encourage hotels closer to attractions and existing businesses—near the economic core—in order to spur more activity within our borders; promote walkability; and give travelers an incentive to visit local shops, restaurants and destinations.
Ensure Gavilan Builds Campus, Hospital Stays Healthy
While Gavilan College and Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital have their own elected boards overseeing decisions, it’s vitally important for San Benito County—and its economic future—to ensure a viable future for these two entities. It’s crucial that Gavilan College stays on track toward building a full satellite campus in the Hollister area and that the hospital stays on solid financial footing. Credible higher education and healthcare facilities are crucial elements for a local economy, and the ability to recruit and retain good employers.
Green Business Incentives
I’m a big advocate for green business and fully support Integrated Waste Management’s efforts to execute a successful Green Business program that certifies local businesses for environmentally responsible practices. It’s a great way to promote businesses that are doing things the right way. Green business is also a growing industry, and county leaders should explore ways to incentivize new green-oriented businesses to open shop here.
Broadband Infrastructure Upgrade
One of the biggest deterrents for companies to prospectively moving here is our lack of high-speed broadband infrastructure. Last spring, I proposed the county map out a plan with specific milestones, which involves investing in a major upgrade of local broadband infrastructure. Now the issue seems to be on local governments’ radar. In today’s world, access to high-speed internet is a must for homes and particularly businesses, especially in our tech-oriented region. I would suggest county leaders partner with the cities and look at partially funding this initiative by using some money from the business license tax along with an aggressive pursuit of state and federal grants. Ideally, we would fund this endeavor 100% with outside dollars, and perhaps there are opportunities ahead to use COVID-19 relief funds on this as well.
Road Infrastructure Improvements a Must
Above all, if we’re going to get serious about economic development, the first priority must be improvements to road infrastructure. I commend the county for making road upgrades a top priority. I will certainly make it a top priority as well in order to improve local residents’ quality of life and improve economic development prospects.