Top 5 Takeaways From Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s 7th Annual Conference

MBEP held its annual ‘State of the Region’ conference on Oct. 29. Here are the most important points.

PUBLISHED NOV 1, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Kate Roberts, President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP); Rep. Jimmy Panetta; and state Sen. John Laird at the virtual MBEP “State of the Region” conference.

Kate Roberts, President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP); Rep. Jimmy Panetta; and state Sen. John Laird at the virtual MBEP “State of the Region” conference.

The Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP), a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 to “improve the economic health and quality of life in the region” of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, held its seventh annual “State of the Region” conference on Oct. 29, with speakers and panelists covering a range of topics from the current COVID-19 outlook, to child care, to affordable housing. 

The conference was held online via video, because according to MBEP President and CEO Kate Roberts, the COVID-19 Delta variant surge was just starting to take hold when organizers faced their deadline for deciding whether to resume an in-person format.

Hosted by Roberts, who said that she plans to retire at the end of 2021, the conference highlighted two companies whose technological innovations could have a significant impact on some crucial regional issues. The keynote address was delivered by JoeBen Bivert, founder and CEO of “electric aerial ridesharing” company Joby Aviation, makers of an air taxi designed to run quieter than an automobile while producing zero emissions and providing low-cost, efficient transportation over short distances.

The CEO of Boxabl, a startup company that mass-manufactures houses in a factory, also appeared at the conference to explain his business.

Here are five important takeaways from the four-hour conference.

Quantitative Data Is Key to Addressing Race-Based Educational Inequities

Michael Applegate, the data and research partnership manager at the Bright Futures Education Partnership for Monterey County, discussed “making the invisible visible” by using data to demonstrate how racial bias is embedded in the educational system.

“If we want to get different results,” Applegate said, “we have to figure out where we need to change the system that is producing them. Previously, we only had measures of student performance. We didn’t track any measures of system performance. We knew if we wanted to shift systems, we’d have to start to quantify systemic inequities.”

According to numbers presented by Applegate, in a study of unified school districts—that is, districts that encompass kindergarten through grade 12—with at least 1,000 students, districts with a majority of students of color received funding at an average rate of $14,000 per student in 2019-2020. Majority white student districts, on the other hand, were funded at $22,000 per student. Funding the districts with a majority of minority students at the same rate as white districts would result in $172 million per year in additional funding.

According to a new Public Policy Institute of California study cited by Applegate, each additional $1,000 in funding per student led to a 13 percent improvement in English language arts scores and an 18 percent increase in math scores in districts “with the highest need students.”

The differences in funding levels, Applegate said, are due in large part to differences in property tax revenues—a disparity that can be traced back to the history of “redlining,” that is, the practice of racial discrimnation in housing and home financing. For much of California’s history, people of color were prohibited from buying homes in many areas, and were denied loans to buy homes when they were supposedly available. These polices led not only to racial segregation, but to “massive wealth accumulation, targeting billions of dollars in wealth exclusively to whites,” Applegate said.

Child Care Is a Business Issue

A panel discussion moderated by Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Farmer made the point that the availability, or lack thereof, of safe, affordable, quality child care is not simply an issue for parents but for the well-being of businesses, workers and the economic health of entire communities.

Farmer said that the Salinas CoC and other regional business groups have been trying to figure out why businesses have been experiencing difficulty “hiring employees at this time.” What they found is that “a lot of parents did not have options for people to take care of their children. So they might not be able to return to work, even if they wanted to. We realized that child care really is a business issue, and whether you have children or not, you are affected directly or indirectly by this issue.”

Panelist Sonja Koehler, director of the Bright Beginnings Early Childhood Development Initiative, displayed a chart showing that the United States remains an “outlier” in funding for child care, ranking at the bottom on a list of 16 economically developed countries. In fact, at just $500 per child, the U.S. spends less than one-sixth as much as the next-lowest country, Israel. The average spending among the other developed countries is $14,436 per child.

“Low wages don’t help,” Koehler added. “At an average of $14 an hour, it is very hard to recruit and retain qualified staff, even in the best of times. So without a competitive wage, it purely is a labor of love falling on the shoulders of women and following a historic pattern of low-wage jobs falling mostly on the shoulders of women of color.”

More Help Is on the Way From the State and Feds

Congressional Representative Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat representing the 20th district covering Monterey and San Benito counties as well as parts of Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, appeared at the conference from his Washington, D.C., office to deliver an update on the status of the “Build Back Better” bill. The spending package, which Democrats in Congress plan to pass via “reconciliation” without any Republican support, stands at $1.75 trillion in its current version.

State Senator John Laird, who represents the 27th District covering parts of Monterey County as well as Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, also took part in the discussion, outlining the numerous economic programs designed to help the state revive from the pandemic, including the “Golden State Stimulus,” which sent two $600 payments to Californians who earned less than $75,000 in 2020.

The federal bill has been debated among Democrats for months, primarily with two senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—objecting to various items in the bill. Because Democrats have only 50 senators, they need all of their votes, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, to pass the bill through reconciliation.

“You’re seeing legislation happening in the open. You’re seeing the sausage being made within the Democratic Party in a very transparent way,” Panetta said, calling the bill “human infrastructure.”

The bill will provide funding for “mainly our green economy. How can we do better to address the effects of climate change? Finally we’re doing something. We’re going to do it by way of tax incentives, so that there’s more green buses, green cars, linear generators, microgrids, solar, wind, hydrogen, geothermal investments.”

The bill also includes “universal pre-K, child care, expansion of the child tax credit, improving accessibility and affordability for health care [and] home care workers so that they can get paid more, more worker training at our community colleges, more funding for agricultural research—something that’s important to us on the Central Coast—and yes, funding for one million affordable housing units.”

‘Folding’ Houses May Be Key to Housing Crisis

Saying she wanted to highlight the startup company Boxabl because what it does is “just so freaking cool,” Roberts turned the virtual stage over to Paolo Tiramini, the firm’s CEO and founder. The company mass-produces housing units which, Tiramini said, can be assembled in one hour, meet or exceed all safety and building code standards, come equipped with home appliances and cost just $50,000 for the whole package.

“No other buildings are built in a factory,  that can ship,” Tiramini said, speaking from the company’s 170,000 square-foot factory in Las Vegas. “One of the core technologies of Boxabl is that we pack down.”

While some areas of a home “cannot be compressed, stairs, closets and things of that nature,” Tiramini noted that “about two-thirds of our home is typically empty space, so we just said, ‘let’s fold it down.’ And that allowed us to ship all around the world, eight-foot wide with no permits, no nothing.”

Upon delivery, a Boxabl house “unpacks to a huge, 20-foot wide, nine-and-a-half foot ceilings. With those kinds of numbers, if you think of them as large Lego blocks, if you put those blocks together you can build pretty much anything.”

Though the firm is a for-profit company, “we are good works,” Tiramini said. “The company has been set up to fix a problem, to fix one of the largest problems the world has currently. The mission of the company is very, very simple: to put as many roofs over as many people’s heads as we can, at the very, very highest quality, but the lowest price.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic Will Become Endemic, so Get Vaccinated

With the COVID-19 pandemic being the top economic issue over the past 18 months, the conference heard from University of California-Santa Cruz immunologist Susan Carpenter, who covered some basic science behind the pandemic, and why “variant” versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID disease, remain a threat—one that is unlikely to go away.

The virus, Carpenter explained, is based on an “RNA genome” like the majority of viruses, meaning that its genetic material is RNA rather than DNA, and that makes the genetic material “less stable,” she said.

“As it replicates, it can have errors, and if those errors are advantageous to the virus we can see a rise of variants.” The dominant strain of the virus in the world today is the delta variant, which is considerably more contagious than the original strain that dominated in 2020. One individual infected with the original strain is likely to pass the virus on to one or two other people. But a person carrying the delta variant will also infect between five and eight others, Carpenter explained.

“The data that we’re seeing so far suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is going to become endemic,” Carpenter said. “What that means is it’s not going away anytime soon. Our hope is that it will evolve to the point to be like other coronaviruses that just affect us like the common cold. But if we continue to see variants arising, that means we could require updated vaccines on a yearly basis.”

If the virus isn’t going away, how do we protect ourselves? The answer is pretty simple.

“Get vaccinated,” Carpenter said. “Vaccines don’t just protect you, they protect those around you who might not be able to get vaccinated.” She also endorsed continued mask-wearing indoors, because masks are “an effective tool against this virus.”

Vaccination also protects against the long-term symptoms of “long COVID,” that is, debilitating symptoms of the disease that continue for weeks or even months after a person has seemingly recovered and no longer tests positive for the virus.

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