Quick Take:

In a recent radio interview, MBEP President/CEO Kate Roberts shares insights into how MBEP got its start and how the regional, nonprofit organization brings people together to find solutions to regional challenges around affordable housing, broadband access, workforce development and more.

Complex issues may not have simple solutions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be addressed.

Those challenges, in fact, are why Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP) exists. Now in its sixth year, this regional nonprofit membership organization continues to tackle some of the most daunting issues facing the Monterey Bay region.

YouTube video

Driven by the vision of a thriving region with quality jobs, excellent education, and first-rate health care while preserving the natural beauty of our beautiful natural environment, MBEP works to promote equity and economic vitality across the region by focusing on targeted initiatives — housing, broadband, workforce development, and climate change — approaching those complex challenges with a regional lens. As those problems are too big for any individual city, county, business or nonprofit organization to solve alone, MBEP brings local leaders to the table to collaborate to find regional solutions.

MBEP President and CEO Kate Roberts recently spoke with Think Local First Membership Director Andrea Konrad on the Think Local First radio program (AM 1080 or FM 104.1) about how MBEP takes on challenges, increases awareness about big issues among policymakers, leaders, businesses and residents, and addresses policies that impact those issues.

Since MBEP’s inception in 2015, it has addressed — and continues to focus on — some truly complicated issues: housing shortfalls and high housing costs that impact middle-wage and low-income residents and families, making it challenging for employers to attract top talent to the region; ensuring an adequate pipeline of trained workers for good-paying jobs that can provide liveable wages; and closing the digital divide in a region where high-speed internet is simply unavailable or outright unaffordable for far too many people. And most recently, MBEP has also committed to mitigating climate change — which intersects with all those other challenges — as one of its targeted initiatives.

Some tidbits from that radio interview, edited for clarity and length: https://storage.buzzsprout.com/gvrbkn3o7lrzuzugrxcfsg4exn98

Roberts, who joined MBEP as president in September 2015, talks about MBEP’s origins:

“In the spring of 2015, a handful of really smart people got together and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had an organization that looked at the problems that each jurisdiction, or company or nonprofit, faces in its own space, but really brought the region together to tackle those issues?’ And so, a handful of very enlightened people — Bud Colligan was one of them here from Santa Cruz, Mary Ann Leffel from Monterey County, René Mendez, the city manager of Gonzales, and a few others — founded MBEP.

We had our first board meeting in April 2015 with the intent of really bringing a new lens to the issues that we all struggle with: affordable housing, workforce development — all the things that we wrestle with. How do we really solve these issues unless we come together?”

One of MBEP’s strengths, says Roberts, is that its membership draws from across the tri-county region (San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties) and is multi-sector, with members that range from large corporations such as Taylor Farms to small companies, city and county governments, educational institutions (nearly all of the region’s two-year colleges and four-year universities are MBEP members, along with the Pajaro Valley Unified School District and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education), and many of the region’s nonprofit and healthcare organizations.

“So that’s kind of the trifecta,” said Roberts. “If you can get all those people around the table, thinking about how we fix what’s wrong, and how we put regional solutions together, that was the new thing that MBEP brought. There really wasn’t an organization that was looking at things that way.”

On bridging the Digital Divide:

Broadband, as an essential utility for businesses and economic development, and for residents and students as a quality-of-life issue, has been on MBEP’s radar for many years, long before COVID-19 made the gaps in digital access and equity glaringly obvious. “We have always known the need for broadband infrastructure and access was essential to the region,” said Roberts.

A triple bottom line approach:

“We are an economic development organization, so we’re always looking at how we can remove obstacles and invest in areas where we can increase business activity,” said Roberts. “But we also are what is called a triple bottom line organization — some people call it ‘people, planet, profit’ — but we call it ‘economic, equity and environment,’ the three ‘E’s. So even though ‘economic’ is in our name, we consider everything that we do through those three lenses. Will it bring better equity to our region? Will it harm the environment?”

On taking on big challenges:

“I always say, ‘If it were easy, it would be done,’ ” says Roberts, who admits that early on, the idea of a small, nonprofit taking on such a complex issue as housing, in a region with some of the highest housing costs in the nation and a widening gap between the supply and demand of affordable housing, was initially daunting.

But MBEP’s Housing Initiative, launched in 2016, created the mold for how to tackle housing challenges.

“We did what has sort of become our MO, how we operate: We got a bunch of very smart people around a table with a diverse set of backgrounds — private developers, nonprofit developers, city and county staff, philanthropy — to say, ok, where are the gaps, where is there an opportunity for MBEP to add value?”

The first of those, says Roberts, was funding: MBEP’s creation of the Monterey Bay Housing Trust, in partnership with Housing Trust Silicon Valley, meant that affordable housing developers could apply for low-interest loans. Thanks to a four-to-one fund match from Housing Trust Silicon Valley, MBEP raised more than $12 million, which has already helped launch 12 affordable housing projects in the region.

“Some of those projects were literally sitting on paper and didn’t have the funds to get off the ground,” said Roberts, “so it’s been incredibly exciting to see these projects come to fruition because of these funds.”

MBEP also works to create awareness among policymakers, elected officials and city staffers, residents and business owners, about projects and policies that could help bring more housing to the region. That advocacy work is vital, said Roberts. MBEP’s Housing White Paper, produced with Envision Housing, identified realistic policy changes that could improve housing affordability, such as easing restrictions around ADUs, or changing the way impact fees are calculated. Then MBEP took those ideas on the road, sharing those recommendations in jurisdictions and in dozens of community meetings.

MBEP continues to provide technical knowledge to public agencies and planning departments that can remove barriers to regional progress, and to encourage industry leaders in agriculture, hospitality, healthcare and education to envision how they can be part of the solution to the region’s housing shortfall.

Housing, workforce, transportation, climate change: MBEP works at the nexus of deeply entwined issues. MBEP’s approach — bringing together smart people, big ideas and creative approaches — is effectively moving progress forward on some of the Monterey Bay region’s biggest challenges. “Teasing these issues apart, asking good questions, getting smart people around the table to try to figure out where some solutions are, that’s what we try to do.”

Learn more about MBEP’s Housing, Workforce Development, Broadband and Climate Change initiatives — and gain new insights into the work being done to improve quality of life across the region — through this engaging radio conversation between Roberts and Konrad.

Also check out MBEP’s Chief Operating Officer Freny Cooper’s perspective on bridging the digital divide on “Advancements,” an award-winning show highlighting innovative solutions to global problems. Cooper, who serves as program manager for MBEP’s Broadband Initiative, recently participated as a guest expert in a discussion on bringing broadband to underserved areas. Hosted by Ted Danson, the award-winning show reaches approximately 100 million subscribers, will air on Saturday, Aug. 14 on CNBC.

Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...