Meet Santa Barbara's First Economic Development Chief
By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers
"New Economic Development Manager Walks into Santa Barbara Chaos."
That was the headline on a profile of Jason Harris, by Josh Molina, two weeks after the man hired to drag the city's doddering economy into the 21st century started work here.
Harris had accepted the Santa Barbara post in February, when all he thought he faced were monumental challenges to a) establish an innovative economic development plan to diversify and grow the city's flagging retail-tourism business core; b) revitalize downtown and answer the eternal question of What to Do About State Street; c) calm, inveigle and persuade a choleric business community alienated from City Hall that the cavalry had arrived and help was forthcoming.
Then the pandemic hit.
The local economy got clobbered by the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, triggered by the worst public health emergency since World War I, all by the time he'd moved his family to Thousand Oaks and planted his toothbrush and suitcase in a weekday pied a terre in the city.
"For what the job description was, for what I was recruited to do, things changed dramatically," Harris told Newsmakers, in the understatement of the week. "Establishing an economic development plan, working on revitalization of the downtown, that's the core focus and function of my work.
"Obviously that had to be postponed somewhat," he added. "Now it's really triaging and supporting the critical needs of our businesses in this economic shutdown. And so I immediately triaged into the organization."
Harris is a smart, fast-talking, fast-thinking seasoned professional, who's previously found success in equivalent positions in Santa Monica and Phoenix. Well-educated and well-spoken about the methodology of managing change, he laces his complete, right-branching sentences with planning jargon and business-speak references to "process," "skill sets," "real time," "a creative knowledge-based workforce" and "entrepreneurial gardening."
Pausing for breath at least two, maybe three, times during a 30-minute interview, he displayed confidence, optimism and calm that right now he's laser-focusing on the exasperatingly complex job of pulling hundreds of Santa Barbara businesses back from the brink by helping them navigate extraordinarily complex cross-currents of ever-changing state, county and city emergency orders, shape shifting policies and on-the-fly processes and procedures.
"We’re working in real time, literally hour by hour," Harris told us. "It’s crazy times, but I actually feel very fortunate that I'm here to make a difference."
Jason's immediate goal is to get downtown restaurants equipped with all the approvals and sign offs they need to start providing safe and socially distanced outdoor dining, perhaps as early as Friday.
Since the city council on Tuesday gave the go-ahead, along with a clear mandate to close at least a couple blocks of State Street to vehicular traffic, he's been hustling from meeting to meeting in an effort to put together a game plan that takes advantage as swiftly as possible of the governor lifting his economic shutdown order.
"We are contemplating the possibility of closing (two blocks of State Street) as early as (Friday)," he said. "But we're trying to think through these issues in real time, and be timely and support the businesses -- and then we’re also trying to balance and understand the needs of the consumer.
"The question is, how much our local residents are going to start going out and support the businesses," he added.
In the interview, Harris also answered questions about his longer-term economic vision for Santa Barbara, the challenges of bringing change to the embattled Community Development Department, the importance of diversifying the city's economy, the overarching importance of new housing construction downtown, and more.
"What is my ability to effect change?" he said. "Obviously I don’t oversee a department, but I am an additional voice of perspective, and an advocate, and I can look to assist, to work with community groups, to work with developers, work with community development staff to find process improvement, suggest change, advocate for projects and I'll look to build upon all those skills and efforts to make a difference.
"How substantive and how effective? To be identified and known," he added. "But I'm optimistic that I will be able to make a difference."