21 for ’21: Bonnie Lipscomb helping city’s economy adapt and change amid pandemic

Bonnie Lipscomb
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Bonnie Lipscomb and her team at the City of Santa Cruz’s Economic Development office had to set aside business-as-usual and create new models to help businesses survive 2020.

When disaster strikes, people tend to turn to government for help. But which government? The White House? Congress? Sacramento?

In the case of the sudden shutdown from the shelter-in-place order in March, many business owners in Santa Cruz turned to a more immediate, street-level form of government. They called City Hall. And when they did, often, on the other end of the line was Bonnie Lipscomb and her team at the city’s Economic Development office.

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As a lease-holder, a permit-granting agency, an infrastructure manager, and a general resource for local businesses, Economic Development found itself in the middle of the chaotic change of circumstances brought on by the mushrooming pandemic. Lipscomb and her team had to find a different gear to address the onslaught of questions and concerns that they faced from bewildered and stressed local businesses.

Business-as-usual was immediately set aside as Lipscomb marshaled the energy and experience of the city’s staff. Initially, the mandate was to establish an effective mode of communication between business owners and those who might provide answers to their questions.

“We were in full-on emergency mode from the beginning,” she said. “But we didn’t really have a model to turn to. What we did have, and that was really helpful in this community, was the (1989 Loma Prieta) earthquake. Those from Santa Cruz who had been around for the earthquake were really great resources for us.”

Drawing from lessons in the aftermath of the earthquake, Lipscomb and her staff quickly shed any notion of strict job description or individual silos. “The pandemic enabled us to go beyond our normal jurisdictions or area boundaries, and enabled us to partner with other folks in really creative ways, like we had never done before.”

The city was called on to provide answers to vexing questions on how and when businesses could re-open. City staffers found an available source of hand sanitizer and put together kits for businesses to adapt to new guidelines that were being created on the fly.

“We kept hearing, ‘We don’t know how to interpret this?’ The rules kept changing every day, it seemed. It was really frustrating for everybody.”

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Soon, the mandate was to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), suspend city leases and establish a micro-loan program. And, as an uncertain spring turned into a wary summer and downtown restaurants were forced to create dining areas outdoors, the city was compelled to suspend its normal permitting process and close downtown streets to cars. Some businesses got permits in a day that would normally take weeks.

Nor were businesses merely passive spectators. Some business owners made calls to secure the K-rail barriers that businesses needed to set up in the streets.

The result was a transformation of downtown Santa Cruz and other business districts. And Lipscomb believes that the lessons of 2020 will remain long after the threat of COVID-19 is gone, that recovery from the pandemic in 2021 is going to continue to require improvisation and flexibility.

Last week, the Santa Cruz City Council approved an emergency extension of the outdoor expansion program through the fall of next year.

“It sets a standard for us going forward,” said Lipscomb. “It’s certainly a different model, opening us up to the idea that things can be done differently, and that these strengthened relationships that I think we formed during the pandemic can bring us together to work more effectively.”

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com