FRESNO – Will Oliver, the incoming CEO of Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, has surmised small cities like Reedley and Sanger are uniquely positioned to deal with the economic challenges facing Fresno County and the Central Valley – now, and in the years to come.
“I look at it as a gym membership,” Oliver said as he described the EDC’s relationship with Reedley and Sanger. “The more we’re able to (put in the) work with our participating cities, the better. And we’ve had a very great relationship working with Reedley and Sanger city officials.”
Oliver, who is currently vice president of business services, has been with the EDC since 2013. He is taking over the reins from Lee Ann Eager, who has been CEO since 2009. Under Eager’s stewardship, the 42-year-old organization has grown from eight to 21 employees.
“I am so blessed to inherit an incredible and brilliant team here at the EDC,” Oliver said.
When asked how he plans to lead the corporation going forward, Oliver said he wants to make sure the EDC accelerates the work that is already ongoing; and that the corporation brings in talented staff to continue its mission forward.
“I want us to attract new job creators and to get our Good Jobs Challenge programs off the ground,” he said. He added that he has plans to continue the EDC’s legacy of being creative, intentional and occasionally unconventional, particularly when it comes to economic development.
GOOD JOBS CHALLENGE
Oliver is particularly excited about the $23 million in funding the EDC received last fall from a Good Jobs Challenge grant award.
“We were one of 32 nationwide out of 509 applications, and one of two in California,” he said. “Our very first program we were able to fund was in Reedley, at their state-of-the-art industrial training facility at Reedley College.”
Oliver said the program is still in the design phase. He described it as a manufacturing generalist training program.
“We did it in partnership with local manufacturers who were able to bring in a code trainer alongside college faculty,” Oliver said. “They were able to vet the curriculum and engage the students. It was one of the first Good Jobs Challenge projects from start to finish that was brand new to take place nationally.”
AUTONOMOUS TRACTORS, ELECTRIC PLANES AND JUICE
Oliver credits Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba and the Reedley City Council for making Reedley an alluring destination for new companies and technology, as well as for companies that wish to expand.
“Nicole Zieba and the council go above and beyond to make sure businesses are successful,” Oliver said. “Reedley is also very innovative. As you know, Nicole has really led the way in terms of electric aviation nationally, and that is a huge highlight for our region and for the types of innovative companies we want to bring here.”
In an earlier article published on Aug. 15, the Times reported that Zieba acquired four all-electric planes from Slovenia, making Reedley the owner of the largest number of such planes in the U.S.
One work partner Oliver mentioned in particular was Blue White Robotics, an Israeli-based company that uses hardware and software to transform any tractor into an autonomous vehicle. The company has a location in Fresno and recently opened a location in Reedley.
“We’ve been working with Blue White Robotics since 2019,” said Oliver. “They bring their state-of-the-art technology and engineering capabilities to create autonomous kits and are able to retrofit tractors so they can operate unmanned. This is important because, as you know, there are labor shortages in this space. Tractor rollovers are one of the top reasons for farm injuries.”
Oliver added that the EDC and Zieba worked together to bring Sierra Agra, a juice production company, to Reedley.
“They created a proprietary processing technology that uses culls (essentially uses ‘throw away fruit and veggies’ to create food and drink products), which is a game changer for the local ag industry,” Zieba said in an emailed statement to the Times. “Sierra Agra became such an instant hit that they outgrew their site here in Reedley before they even began, so they are now at a much larger facility in Fowler.”
However, Zieba noted the Fowler facility has “Reedley” on its building; a headnod to the work the city did with them before their relocation.
Oliver said he does not pit cities against each other when considering their advantages or disadvantages; instead, he thinks about what makes them unique.
Oliver said the EDC has worked with many companies in Sanger. When asked what he considers is an EDC success in Sanger, Oliver said Initiative Foods, which manufactures baby food. He said the EDC has worked with Initiative for more than a decade.
“We’ve worked with many companies in Sanger. Each one varies on the types of properties we can promote and the types of prospective companies we can attract to the region, but the most notable success is with Initiative Foods,” he said.
Initiative is one of the nation’s largest baby food makers. In 2017, the Sanger location caught fire, destroying the facility. According to Oliver, an all-hands-on-deck effort, which included the help of city officials as well as community and banking partners, was instrumental in restoring the company.
“We were proud to work with the company, with city officials and many community partners to help get them back on their feet,” Oliver said. “We were able to bring in state resources, bring in our federal partners, our banking partners to make sure there was an all-hands-on-deck approach for them to get back operationally and also to rebuild.”
Oliver said Initiative will be one of the first companies the EDC will contact when it rolls out its Good Jobs Challenge training programs.
“They’re also one of those partners we’ll be leaning on for the Good Jobs Challenge when we’re looking to do training and hire folks,” he said. “In Sanger, that was one of our greatest successes as an organization and was truly a community partnership.”
Oliver said the biggest challenge he and the EDC face is the historically low commercial and industrial inventory.
“There have been times we have not been able to respond to requests for properties, or requests for information, because of that lack of inventory,” Oliver said. “And the lack of speculative development that’s in the pipeline – that has been difficult.”
He said the EDC will respond as it always has to challenges. “We have to be creative. More nimble and creative. We have to be proactive.” He believes that when inventory becomes plentiful again, small cities such as Reedley and Sanger will be ready.
“We think our small cities throughout Fresno County are uniquely positioned to ready themselves for commercial and industrial investment,” said Oliver. “It takes a partnership; it takes strategic planning. But there are plans in place and folks are working to address those challenges.”