Thursday, April 28, 2011

Transitioning to the new economy

by Constance Beutel
Published in The Benicia Herald, April 27, 2011
Last Thursday Benicia celebrated Earth Day. It was a well-attended event at the Veterans Memorial Building, with city staff and community groups providing information and demonstrations about everything from water-wise gardening to suitable California native plants for landscaping to energy-efficient construction and insulation techniques — and much more.

What especially interested me at the celebration were some of the conversations we had about sustainability. A few people wondered whether sustainability focused only on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, or if there is a wider definition. Certainly, one of the major tasks of the Community Sustainability Commission is implementing Benicia’s Climate Action Plan that is specifically focused on greenhouse gas reductions. But as I explained last week, sustainability is defined as providing for today’s needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to provide for their needs — so it encompasses much more than the environment.

There are generally three fundamental components to sustainability: environmental, economic and social. The competition for resources, their conservation and the potential impacts of harmful resource utilization on the environment are critical considerations for us — but equally important are the economic and social viability of our communities.

Last month I had the opportunity to film Suze Orman and listened carefully to her analysis about the immediate outlook for the U.S. housing, financial and job markets. In essence, she noted that the country has lost about 20 million jobs since the start of the recession, and she estimated most of those specific jobs will not return. Why? She feels businesses have learned to operate “lean and mean” while taking the savings realized from reduced payrolls to the bank.

What that seems to mean for our economic sustainability is that we need ways of anticipating global economic trends so we as a community can leverage our knowledge and skills to remain economically competitive and viable.

We know the importance of small firms to our national economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small firms:

• Represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms.

• Employ a little more than half of all private sector employees.

• Pay 44 percent of total U.S. private payroll.

• Have generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years.

• Hire 40 percent of high-tech workers (such as scientists, engineers, and computer programmers).

• Made up 97.3 percent of all identified exporters and produced 30.2 percent of the known export value in fiscal year 2007.

• Produce 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting firms; these patents are twice as likely as large firm patents to be among the 1 percent most cited.

Here in Benicia, there are more than 450 businesses in the Industrial Park alone, employing about 6,500 people. This chart shows the distribution of enterprises.
We are fortunate that in promoting sustainable business in Benicia we have active community agencies and organizations: The city’s Economic Development Division and Economic Development Board, Planning Commission, Community Development Department and Community Sustainability Commission; the Benicia Chamber of Commerce and its committees, including the Benicia Industrial Park Association and BIZNET; and Benicia Main Street. In addition, there are many local and chapter professional and service organizations that serve our business communities, such as Soroptimist International of Benicia, the Rotary Club of Benicia, and many others.

Whether we are business owners or residential business and trade professionals, we are going to need reliable information and knowledge to better prepare and position ourselves for the transitions our economy is going through.

The good news is that City Council unanimously approved the Community Sustainability Commission’s recommendation to bring Dominican University of California’s Green MBA and Environmental Finance Center expertise to Benicia in the next two free lecture-workshop series.

The second series, titled “The Benicia Sustainable Economy,” will be offered this fall. It is a six-part program that draws from Dominican’s renowned Green MBA program. The topics covered will include principles of sustainable business; sustainable operations management; marketing tactics and strategies; and business, government and civil society.

The point of working with Dominican is to offer Benicians the opportunity to go deeper and more substantively into the elements of sustainable business. I know many residents will want to take advantage of this superb free educational opportunity funded through the Valero-Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement. And I know many will have ideas on fine-tuning the curriculum to meet your needs. If you’re interested and would like to help as we prepare this next series, email me at

A quick reminder: The first lecture-workshop series offered in collaboration with Solano Community College continues. Lecture two, “Understanding Climate Change,” was held Tuesday and the video of that lecture will be available on Benicia Public Library’s Green Business page (

The next lecture-workshops will be held May 10 from 7-9 p.m. (“Climate Action Plan and Benicia”), at the Benicia Public Library; May 24 from 7-9 p.m. (“Energy, Water and Waste: Conservation”) at Heritage Presbyterian Church, 1400 East Second St.; and June 7 from 7-9 p.m. (“Where are the Green Jobs?”), also at Heritage Presbyterian.

Let’s get to work!

Constance Beutel is vice chair of Benicia’s Community Sustainability Commission. She holds a doctorate from the University of San Francisco and produces video documentary and Internet video streaming.

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