RCAC catalyzes economic growth and facilitates rural development through capacity-building partnerships with community-led organizations like Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, California. RCAC’s Building Rural Economies (BRE) team collaborates with and supports place-based initiatives to create lasting, transformative impacts on economies across the rural West.

The Cuyama Valley is a remote rural area that lies far inland from California’s Central Coast at the confluence of Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The valley is a 300-square-mile area surrounded by public land that encompasses rural communities Cuyama, New Cuyama and Ventucopa. Cuyama Valley’s relative isolation is also one of its most potent assets, allowing for crystal-clear rainwater, unpolluted air and abundant native plant life. However, groundwater scarcity poses a long-term challenge to the valley’s agriculture-based economy. Most of the region’s 1,100 residents are Latinos, many of whom are farmworkers, and 81 percent of households are low-income. Local communities have historically struggled to coordinate their planning and development due to the absence of a centralized government structure, such as a town council.

Blue Sky uses a community-directed approach to planning and decision-making to consolidate the social economy, create a community food system, cultivate resident ownership and contribute to resilient infrastructure.

Blue Sky Center was founded in 2012 to increase Cuyama Valley’s economic viability by developing local resources and meeting the collective needs of the region’s diverse working-class communities and small businesses. Based in a 310-acre former ARCO headquarters in New Cuyama, the center evolved into a vibrant laboratory for entrepreneurs, start-ups and regional businesses. Blue Sky uses a community-directed approach to planning and decision-making to consolidate the social economy, create a community food system, cultivate resident ownership and contribute to resilient infrastructure. Blue Sky began or catalyzed social enterprises that include a revived local airport, a bee apiary, an artisanal brewery, a boutique motel, luxury campsites, restaurants and various small manufacturing businesses.

RCAC’s BRE team provided Blue Sky with extensive technical assistance and training. In 2019, a diverse group of community stakeholders attended the Recharge Our Community Economy (ROCE) workshop series to discuss how to unlock the valley’s potential for sustainable development. As a result, Blue Sky established a Tourism and Wayfinding Working Group focused on community beautification and wayfinding to encourage visitors to visit, shop and explore Cuyama Valley communities. They developed partnerships, found new funding sources and devised detailed plans to create regional maps, creative road signage and a visitor center. The working group also recruited Caltrans to provide $1 million in new arts-based transportation funding to Cuyama, established a new tourism website, visitcuyama.com, and created a community-wide resource directory of local businesses, craftspeople and other resources.

In 2020, RCAC facilitated the bilingual Start, Grow, Revive Your Business workshop series to equip local entrepreneurs with the knowledge and tools to form, grow and mature their business plans. RCAC also contributed to the Cocinando un Negocio entrepreneurial workshop series that offered culturally appropriate, Spanish-language translations of the standard Start, Grow, Revive material to Latina entrepreneurs. As a result, Blue Sky Center hired a Community Coordinator to assist in Blue Sky Center and RCAC community economic development activities.

RCAC’s BRE team helped Blue Sky create financial projections for its own social enterprise, Cuyama Beverage Company, and facilitated a virtual board training on board roles and responsibilities plus nonprofit financials. RCAC staff provided technical assistance to Blue Sky’s executive directors to create onboarding documents for new board members and funding strategies to support the organization’s long-term sustainability. Staff also delivered training and technical assistance to the Community Coordinator on capital campaign fundraising and grant writing.

Blue Sky Center leveraged RCAC’s culturally appropriate, rural-relevant training and assistance to strengthen its capacity and help create employment opportunities and thriving businesses while significantly growing its capacity. As the BRE capacity building partnership with Blue Sky Center grows, RCAC looks forward to making even greater contributions to Cuyama Valley’s future development and success.

“RCAC’s focus on building staff and human resource capacity in the communities that it serves sets it apart from other organizations, and this is one of the most impactful things it can continue to do,” said Em Johnson, Blue Sky Director of Strategy. “This work of establishing a foundation of small businesses and entrepreneurs will help stabilize our community for a long time.”