San Benito County Supervisor Betsy Dirks. MBEP screen capture.
San Benito County Supervisor Betsy Dirks, on left. MBEP screen capture.

There was an air of optimism at the Eighth Annual Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) State of the Region gathering on Oct. 14 as participants held the group’s first in-person conference in two years. Congressman Jimmy Panetta and California Assemblymember Robert Rivas provided updates stressing the bipartisan nature of recent legislation that benefited the Central Coast community. Local community leaders took part in panel discussions on a wide range of subjects such as education, health care, homelessness and how new opportunities and awareness may arise from what was learned during the pandemic. 

Panetta, representing the 20th Congressional District, pointed to bills passed in the last two years under the Biden administration that directly affect Monterey and San Benito counties, including the COVID relief packages, veterans health bills, the Safer Community Act that addresses gun violence, and the Inflation Reduction Act. He also pointed out that 75% of the bills passed this congress were bipartisan.

This was the first year Rivas, representing the 30th Assembly District, attended the MBEP event. He discussed the state’s housing problem and how for many years, well-intentioned legislation was watered down or killed because of political differences. Recent investments in policy reform, he said, have made major strides in closing the housing gap, particularly with low-income housing.

Housing and homelessness were the subjects of a panel that included San Benito County District 1 Supervisor Betsy Dirks, who is on the county’s Housing Advisory Committee. Dirks said that the committee has just submitted a new housing ordinance to the supervisors.

“I think that as elected officials, we need the political will,” she said, “and we are fortunate that all five supervisors are committed to doing something about affordable housing. One of the things we are doing with this new ordinance is to make sure nothing stands in our way, and we make sure that the policies we have will back us up.” 

During a panel on the lessons learned from the pandemic, Rosa Vivian Fernández, president and CEO of the San Benito Health Foundation, echoed Rivas’ remarks, saying the community faces a challenge at the moment in the shortage of workforce housing. She said her concern was that the pandemic also halted opportunities for some lower-income students. 

“One of my colleagues said we were not going to feel the impact of this for two years,” she said, “but we are seeing the impact now. We are seeing how some were ill-prepared to continue higher education, and we are now interviewing and hiring some of those individuals.”

The inequalities exposed by the pandemic were also the subject of a panel which emphasized how community organizations rallied to assist those in the greatest need. Gary Byrne, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for San Benito County, said that the pandemic highlighted his organization’s ability to work more closely with local partners, saying it was the best thing that came out of the crisis.
“We worked very collaboratively with the county, the city, Gavilan College, the Office of Emergency Services, and others,” he said. “That made a huge difference. We could be on the ground and know what the needs were. For a small organization, we were able to do three rounds of grants that we would never have been able to do before, and that was phenomenal.”

Education was the subject of the last panel of the day, with participants including Pedro Avila, superintendent and president of Gavilan College. Outreach to students who are the first generation in their families to go to college was highlighted, as well as reaching equitable recovery among all students post-pandemic.

“We have been very proactive about creating access and bringing our students back,” Avila said. “Our Latino community was highly impacted by COVID, with many of them being essential workers. We wanted them back, and we wanted to be very intentional about that, so we just forgave half a million dollars of student debt, using our funding to send a strong message that we wanted our students back.”  

Other speakers and forums included a keynote address on solidarity economics presented by Chris Brenner and Manuel Pastor, an address by Tahra Goraya, president and CEO of MBEP, remarks by State Senator John Laird, a panel on the Digital divide, and a presentation on recent advances in drone technology. 

The full conference is available on the MBEP YouTube channel.



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