The Auburn Advantage

How one city turned lifestyle into business leads

Back Article Feb 1, 2014 By Allison Joy

Downtown Auburn has a distinct, modern-day Mayberry feel, from the stone-paved sidewalks to the rustic brick bus stop. But five miles away, tucked into a foothills town of less than 14,000 residents, is a business hub that has drawn new media from L.A., tech manufacturing from Silicon Valley, fine art and, most recently, Knee Deep Brewery’s hailed craft beer.

At the Auburn Airport Business Park, the arrival of more than 30 new businesses in just the past three years testifies to some well thought-out 
private- and public-sector collaboration in this tightly-knight community.

“It’s a neat little community, and it’s good living,” says Don Whitaker, CEO of tech manufacturing company Ceronix. “I was in business in Silicon Valley, and I sold out to move up here and start Ceronix. It’s the best move I’ve ever made.”

The city of Auburn saw a 20 percent drop in its general fund following the economic crash of 2008. There were layoffs, and Auburn’s city workers were not immune to the wage cuts that afflicted state and city employees nationwide.

In the early days of the recession, it was vice mayor and businesswoman Bridget Powers who identified the Auburn Airport Business Park — with its onsite municipal airport, proximity to interstate 80 and highway 49, and manufacturing-friendly free-trade zone — as one of the city’s strongest assets for attracting new business.

Powers worked with business owners and Pacific Gas & Electric to bring high-speed fiber optics to the park. She then set to addressing the logistics of creating a business association, which was officially formed in January of 2010, to help streamline communication between businesses and both the city and county.

Richard Anderson, president of TGH Aviation and the Auburn Airport Business Park Business Association, says the organization helps by providing business owners a direct line to all levels of government.

“We have had U.S. congressmen, state legislators, state senators and local politicians all face our business leaders directly in no-holds-barred discussion forums,” he says. “If the politicians are trying to enact some new law or regulation in this community, then they better be able to explain exactly how it is going to benefit our community or face the firing line.”

Geographically, Auburn sits above valley fog and below mountain snow, allowing the airport to remain open and functional year-round. The business park is easily accessible from both I-80 and highway 49. High-speed Internet is up and running, and the free-trade zone is a huge plus for manufacturing firms. Overhead costs are low, and, being a small town, Auburn offers a stress-free morning commute. These attributes are easily identifiable.

In October of last year, the park’s business association worked with the city to host Auburn Industry Day for CEOs and business development companies from around the state. Local business owners spoke of their own successes, and government officials outlined the benefits of doing business in Auburn, including access to startup loans in exchange for hiring locally. Afterward, real estate leaders gave tours of available properties.

Visit Auburn’s website or YouTube channel, and you’ll find a series of videos put together by City Manager Robert Richardson and the Economic Development Commission. Sent out to CEOs statewide, the videos laud more than just financial feasibility and ease of transport. More than anything, Auburn is selling its lifestyle. It’s the Endurance Capital of the World, and the city has used that adventure-seeking brand to draw CEOs looking for more than just a space to store their briefcases. Videos pan out over rafters on the American River, follow horse riders into the foothills and skiers down the slopes, encouraging industry professionals to “taste the Auburn lifestyle.”

That lifestyle has proven a good fit for Ridgeline Entertainment CEO Doug Stanley. Stanley, a long-time broadcasting guru best known for the Discovery Channel’s hit series “Deadliest Catch,” moved his operation into the business park three years ago. An avid adventurist himself, Stanley produces a wide range of outdoor, adventure-focused programming with titles like “Hell or Highwater” and “X-Treme Warrior.”

“I fit with Auburn because Auburn has always fit me,” Stanley says.

From his seat in the foothills, Stanley works on the innovative integration of television and social media. He’s partnered with Facebook to create Smackdab, a broadcast platform that allows viewers to communicate with performers and television crews during live broadcasts. With a focus on star-powered events and wilderness adventure, Stanley executes live 2D and 3D broadcasts, layering images from onsite and satellite cameras in conjunction with social media to produce cutting-edge viewer experiences.

Stanley isn’t the only barrier-breaker to call the business park home. There’s also ioSafe, which produces disaster-proof computer hardware; and Miltenyi Biotec, a global provider of tools for biomedical research and cellular therapy. Down the way, Armstrong Technologies builds high-tech manufacturing parts, from intricately designed robotic arms to experimental rocket fuel nozzles.

Ceronix, at the entrance to the park, specializes in the manufacturing of high-resolution, industrial-grade monitors. CEO Don Whitaker also invented the touchscreen technology used on most kiosks and did significant work on the more advanced form of touchscreen technology that is used to unlock your Smartphone.

For Whitaker, the 1-acre free-trade zone has been a huge asset during the 27 years he’s been doing business in Auburn. Yet, he sites the community itself as the biggest draw.

Powers agrees, saying, “We’ve managed to be successful not because of economics but because the people created economic value.”     


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