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Making Santa Cruz a Place to Live and Work: a Q&A with Bonnie Lipscomb

Making Santa Cruz a Place to Live and Work: a Q&A with Bonnie Lipscomb

The future of tech in Santa Cruz is bright. The New Tech Meetup just celebrated its 10th anniverary, a growing number of companies are choosing to stay in Santa Cruz, and local tech enthusiasm is approaching fever pitch.

We chatted with Santa Cruz Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb about her vision for the future of Santa Cruz, the relationship between the tech community and local business development, the biggest challenges the city faces, and what it will take for more people to live and work in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Works: In 2015, the Economic Development Department rebranded to Choose Santa Cruz. What has the impact of that rebrand been?

Bonnie Lipscomb: That was part of a whole effort of outreach to support both the local Santa Cruz community, as well as supporting economic development in the city as a resource to the community. That’s broader than just local businesses. When we say Choose Santa Cruz, it really encompasses a big part of building community. What we do in the department is broader than what you would traditionally think of as just economic development.

The Choose Santa Cruz brand incorporates all the elements of what we do. For example, we have a housing division. We work, and have always worked—even when we were redevelopment—on building houses in our community. We’ve built over 1,200 affordable residential units in the community as well as helped support a number of market rate units, as well.

The Tannery Arts Center is an example of a project that has all the elements to create a vibrant arts campus in the community. It helps artists that were being priced out of Santa Cruz stay in our community. We all recognize that creativity and art is such an important, compelling and vibrant part of our community. By creating 100 units of affordable housing specifically for artists, it helps create and sustain the art environment and artist culture here in Santa Cruz.

Our larger goal there was an adaptive reuse of a contaminated site. We were able to leverage and get funding to clean up that site and repurpose it for things that were needed in our community: both housing and a place to keep the creative culture here and have it thrive and grow. A key element of that was getting the Arts Council to move their office to the Tannery. Now that the theater’s there as well, we’re at a point in the evolution of that whole campus of having what we dreamed of and what our vision was from the very beginning. That’s an example of what we do with the whole Choose Santa Cruz.

How does this work relate to tech and the tech community in Santa Cruz?

Working on the community as a whole, making Santa Cruz the place you want to live and work is part of that supportive atmosphere. For tech companies in Santa Cruz, we don’t want it to be a hard decision for them to grow in Santa Cruz versus growing over the hill. We don’t want them to have a reason to say no, that they can’t grow here in Santa Cruz.

There are people in town who don’t want Santa Cruz to change—they’re happy with it being a funky little beach town. Other people want to bring in more housing, and bring in more tech, and take things to the next level in Santa Cruz. I’m curious how we can balance those two and where you see things headed for the city.

I think change is inevitable and, whether we realize it or not, it’s happening. We’re all aware that we’re in a housing crisis. What’s happening in Santa Cruz, with the cost of housing, is that we’re pricing out the people who already live here. This has been happening for over 10 years. This is not a new phenomenon, it’s just being felt by even larger portions of our existing population.

It’s a delicate balance to maintain what we identify as special about Santa Cruz. Sustaining the beautiful environment we live in is a priority for those of us who live here. But we do run the risk of losing some of those other aspects we might not realize we cherish about our community. That is a balance, and that’s why we have such a robust public art program and why we really encourage the artistic side of Santa Cruz.

That creative side goes really well with the tech community. There’s a lot of crossover between those two areas. A lot of our art is innovative, and innovation is an exciting element of tech. Those things fit together so well in Santa Cruz. Those collaborations are happening and I’d like to see more of them here.

Some of the artisanal, creative things happening in Santa Cruz, like Verve and Humble Sea, are made possible because of the tech community. The challenge is more of education and outreach and awareness of how these fit together. There’s a multiplier effect that makes all these things possible. The tech and innovation in our community really allows and helps pay for a lot of these things. A lot of professional and service positions are possible because of the tech and innovation that’s here in our community. 

Santa Cruz New Tech just had its 10 year anniversary and tech is a hot topic right now in Santa Cruz. What’s the relationship between the Economic Development Department and the tech community?

I think it’s really strong. That multiplier effect is really why we focus so much on tech and innovation in our community. For every job you create in the tech and innovation fields, it creates five other jobs in professional and service areas.

On our Choose Santa Cruz website we have nine industry clusters. We put a lot behind why we have those nine and why we have them here. They’re all interrelated, but specifically, tech and innovation has a bigger impact—more than people would realize—on all those other industries. I can make a connection between a tech and innovation area and almost every other industry cluster we have in Santa Cruz, including tourism.

Part of why we can make those connections in Santa Cruz is because it’s a small community and people are interrelated. But it’s also that element of Santa Cruz that makes it unique and makes it a place people want to live. Tech companies may not pay the same as a company in San Francisco or Santa Clara, but the quality of life here is so much better. That’s worth so much.

That’s part of why we try so hard to bring all these other elements together, and why organizations like Santa Cruz Works and the New Tech Meetup are so important. It’s that underlying infrastructure of support that makes it possible, despite our size, to have a thriving tech business here in Santa Cruz.

What will contribute to the health of our tech ecosystem?

Some of the physical challenges we have of where we’re located with Highway 17 are becoming less of an impediment than they were 10 or 15 years ago. The broadband infrastructure and planning for, hopefully, a ubiquitous network here in Santa Cruz, is huge for long-term sustainability.

Some of the challenges we’re working on surround tech. Specifically, creating viable research and development, even some wet lab space for genomics and tech transfer from the university, which is another critical area. 

There are many reasons why Santa Cruz succeeds and there are many reasons why we have the potential to continue to thrive in these areas into the future. We just need to support those and address some of these areas, like housing, and creating vibrant places for companies to actually sustain and grow in Santa Cruz.

What’s the economic vision for Santa Cruz moving forward? What would you love to see?

We really do need to focus on housing. That’s part of our department mission, to create housing for our community. The overall vision is creating places for our community and businesses to thrive in Santa Cruz, and that means creating places to live. We need both market rate and affordable housing, but we need to be able to build additional housing. I know there are concerns about that in Santa Cruz. We don’t have a lot of green spaces, and the green spaces we have, we want to preserve. But I think we do need more density, particularly in the downtown. That’s something we’re working on.

Some of our commercial corridors can support some modest increased density, as well. There is some resistance to that. Our recent zoning is all about looking at where it’s possible—taking in all the considerations, which include transportation, traffic, water—and getting the community to embrace where we can sustainably build additional housing and provide density. Our downtown is one of the obvious places. So, building housing, building supportive retail space, building some R & D space, looking at the opportunities with the university. We’re already known for genomics and marine sciences. We can build upon that. 

Looking insular at economic development as a city, we need to work and spend some time making sure we’re a resource for the community. I know it can be a challenge sometimes trying to set up a new business in Santa Cruz, or trying to build or adaptively reuse a new site. We need to shepherd businesses through as a business liaison so those challenges aren’t an impediment to their business success. Those are the areas we’re focusing on.

What are the biggest challenges you face in economic development?

Density is tough, and it’s tough in a community that already has traffic issues. Addressing Highway 1 and 9 is critical for our community, and it’s a controversial one. We’re already making changes on the intersection of Highway 1 and 9, but, long-term, we really need to look at the bridge where the bottleneck is. That bridge is outdated and it needs to be replaced, regardless.

We also need to look at parking in the downtown. We have a parking study underway that’s going to look at the future, both automation and transportation demand management, with the goal and hope of people driving less or needing fewer cars in the future.

We already have a high percentage of people who use alternative modes of transportation in Santa Cruz. We do so much better than other cities on that. We’re a community that will continue to lead in that area. In planning for parking, we need to make sure we have that balance right of what supports the businesses and the community and what we can do in the future around parking that also encourages new housing development in the downtown by providing better public transportation.

Another area that’s really important is providing permanent shelter for the homeless in our community. We have such a large homeless population and it’s one of our community’s biggest challenges. We’re working hard on it and we have to create more resources. We have some wonderful service organizations that are working on this too, but we need to have more permanent solutions to house our homeless in our community. This is something that, as a city, we’re spending a lot of focus on over the next few years.

So fixing the housing, fixing the traffic, fixing the parking and encouraging people and tech companies to stay here and grow in Santa Cruz are all related.

Yes, they are absolutely all related.