Core economic initiatives split over grant talks

Jun. 18—Competition for a multimillion-dollar state grant has exposed a rift in Kern County economic development efforts by setting the mainstream B3K Prosperity collaboration against a Kern Community College District-led coalition focused on giving voice to labor and historically underrepresented groups.

Weeks of negotiations aimed at bringing together the two efforts ended Friday without an agreement on how to proceed with a single grant application. The talks had come amid an 11th-hour compromise and public plea for unity.

Because the state says only one grant will be awarded to the region, the impasse means Sacramento will have to decide which local coalition is better suited to meet its goal of addressing income inequality amid climate change and economic disruption related to the pandemic.

Leaders representing both local campaigns say they still welcome the other to come to its side of the table, but with a deadline on Wednesday, the failure to reach agreement suggests any further jockeying for position may have to wait until after it’s determined who’ll take the driver’s seat.

Behind some of the recent disunity are lingering grievances about what some see as B3K’s lack of inclusion as it tries to spur local job creation at the same time the college district partners with separate stakeholders on a parallel but distinct economic development effort called the High Road Training Partnership.

At stake in their grant application competition isn’t the timing and amount of money Kern gets from the state — but who will control it.

The pot of money both groups are aiming for, the Community Economic Resilience Fund, was established with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature on a bill Sept. 23 that devotes $600 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The Newsom administration divided the state into 13 regions, one of which consists only of Kern — an acknowledgment, some say, of the unique challenges the county faces because of its reliance on industries with troubled outlooks: oil and ag.

Two grant phases are planned, the first of which would offer $5 million for planning purposes. The second, for program implementation, could offer tens of millions of dollars.

Each region’s implementation grant will depend on its plan for forging a “new social contract for shared prosperity” in a fast-changing global economy. Information due this week must spell out what organization would serve as the region’s “convener” and who would be its fiscal agent. Full applications must be turned in by 3 pm July 25.

A spokesman for the administration said by email the state wants to see local stakeholders “coalesce around one grant” put forward by “the most collaborative and all-encompassing applicant.”

Since about the time B3K was founded in early 2020, the KCCD has partnered with two other organizations — the Center for Race, Poverty & The Environment and UC Merced — on the High Road Training Partnership.

Funded by a state grant, the partnership is developing strategies for achieving greater equity in the face of economic shifts brought on by factors like climate change. So far, the coalition has not identified which local sectors it expects to focus on. It has won support among labor unions, community-based groups and environmental justice organizations, as well as partnerships with two national laboratories and a new carbon management center.

B3K, having selected four industry clusters where it sees the strongest prospects for quality employment, has built a broad coalition of local business groups, Cal State Bakersfield, the city of Bakersfield and the county of Kern, among others.

But by its own admission, B3K has fallen short of its goals of inclusion. Arleana Waller, a B3K leader who also serves as CEO of MLKcommUNITY, acknowledged the irony in B3K’s inability to build an adequately diverse base when part of its goal, and one of its potential achievements, is addressing socioeconomic disparities.

No matter which organization’s CERF application wins, she said, business as usual must end.

“We need the top 3 percent to get the job done, but we also need the bottom 3 percent to get the job done,” Waller said, “and I think B3K is challenged with the job of figuring out how to find that balance. ” She added that the college district may not be in as strong a position as B3K to win a CERF grant, and that it would be preferable for both sides to come together on a single application.

Ingrid Brostrom sees things differently as assistant director of CRPE. Predicting other regions will also put forward competing CERF applications, she said B3K erred early on by neglecting to build consensus among community-based groups that have instead sided with the High Road Training Partnership.

Brostrom drew a sharp contrast between the two efforts and the approaches they have pursued. She said B3K seems to be run by some of the same groups that have long driven economic decisions for the county, and that the time has come to help segments of the population that have been left behind.

Her expectation is that the High Road Training Partnership would be happy to incorporate B3K into a CERF proposal “and I would hope the opposite should be true, too,” she said.

Neither organization, B3K or the local HRTP, have submitted a formal CERF application. When they do, a key question will be whose is named the convener and who will be the fiscal agent.

The KCCD could potentially serve as convener and fiscal agent, while B3K’s informal governing structure would disqualify it as a fiscal agent.

Recently, B3K offered to step back as a direct CERF applicant. It backed county government as a proposed fiscal agent and offered to bring in the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Kern as a neutral convener.

CEO Jeremy Tobias said by email CAPK believes a unified application “places Kern in the strongest position for this vitally important funding,” and so offered assistance.

B3K Executive Director JP Lake said his organization has work to do in building trust in the community. But looking past the CERF process, he said state grants represent a small share of the amount of money B3K will need to achieve its goal of 100,000 new good-paying jobs accessible to all with room for advancement over the next 10 years.

Funding the work will require contributions from investors and philanthropists who have taken note of the recent divisions in Kern.

“They’re very much aware that we’re not united,” Lake said.

KCCD Associate Vice Chancellor Trudy Gerald said by email the college district is deeply engaged in the kind of workforce development partnerships called for by the CERF grant program.

She noted the district and its partners have backing from industry, research organizations, government agencies and community groups, all of which are “critical partners in this application.”

“Given the criteria and framework of CERF,” Gerald wrote, “we believe that Kern CCD is in the best position to lead the development of a single application for the region. A perfect fit.”

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