Last month, leaders from government, industry, the military, and academia took a giant leap toward making the Central Coast a global player in the fast-growing commercial space industry. On August 5th, a signed commitment was announced to develop a shared vision for establishing a thriving spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB). It’s just the first of many more bold initiatives described by REACH (Regional Economic Action Coalition) in its ten-year plan to “drive future-oriented investment and job creation, and bolster the resilience of the Central Coast economy.”

“The MOU is a first of its kind for California,” said Andrew Hackle- man, REACH’s Vice President and Chief Strategist.

With a mission to “increase economic prosperity through big thinking, bold action and regional collaboration,” REACH will soon be announcing similar projects, such as the re-purposing of Diablo Canyon, whose closure by the year 2025 will mean the loss of 1500 high paying jobs. REACH wants to influence this transformation into an “attractive mix of conservation, sustainable eco-tourism, renewable energy, water resilience, and cutting-edge research and development.”

If all this sounds a bit ambitious, you haven’t met Melissa James. As REACH’s president and CEO, James has high hopes that by embracing the concept of regionalism, we can create a more prosperous, inclusive economy for all our residents.

Raised in a small town in Northern California, Melissa James is the middle daughter of three girls whose parents are the CFO for a development construction company (her father) and an RN at Southern

Memorial Hospital in Sacramento (her mother). She earned her BA in Social Sciences at Cal Poly in 2005 and went on to accumulate a nearly perfect blend of job experiences in preparation for her current position at the helm of REACH.

“I always knew I wanted to be in the helping professions,” said James, pointing to a memorable stint in Hungary during her undergraduate years. While there, James led a team of fellow college students assigned to orphanages and other mission-related work and said she “fell headlong into helping!” Upon her return to the Central Coast, she worked for a local church ministry and eventually landed a job with then-Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee. Tasked with helping people who needed access to housing and employment services, James liked the feeling of “doing work that at the end of the day, you’ve actually improved people’s lives.”

Starting out in the district office, James worked with Blakeslee and his staff to craft public policy and legislation, staying on when he became a state senator. In 2011, James moved to Sacramento where she was named Capitol Director for the California State Senate.

In 2013, Blakeslee and his chief of staff founded The Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly. They recruited James to be its Director of Communications and Programs.

“But I found I missed being closer to our local community,” she explained. So two years later, James moved over to the Economic Vitality Corporation (EVC) where she was the Director of Economic Development. From there, she took on the job of Director of Economic Initiatives and Regional Advocacy for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. And that’s where she met Andrew Hackle- man, the man who would become her “partner” at REACH.

With extensive experience planning and executing mission-critical initiatives, Hackleman is a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who holds master’s degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology. A native of Atascadero, Hackleman was a logistics and supply chain leader for the USAF, stationed at several bases and the Pentagon. As the executive director of the Home Builder’s Association of the Central Coast from 2017 to 2019, he led efforts to increase the region’s housing supply.

Hackleman’s background in strategy, analysis, logistics, maintenance, and project management is a good complement for James’ unique skills and perspectives. Tapped by the county’s Administrative Officer, Wade Horton, to advise him at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Hackleman worked with James to analyze local hospital capacity and other metrics. Together, they led the county’s re-opening planning (for Covid-19), as well as authored the local policy for START and RISE, the two guides now in place for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties.

“Andrew brings a much-needed skillset,” James explained. “His strategic mind and action-oriented background help drive and define the work we do.”

Spurred by the long-recognized disparity between the high cost of housing and the preponderance of low-wage jobs in this area, plus the impending closure of Diablo Canyon, James and Hackleman launched the Hourglass Project. Designed to “unite the private sector across the region, break down barriers to greater economic prosperity, and chart a path for collective success,” Hourglass became REACH in 2018. “REACH embodies a spirit of regionalism,” says the website. “Our private sector-led coalition partners with public, private, civic, and educational institutions across the Central Coast—a region of about 700,000 people in dozens of cities and towns in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties.”

In addition to the aforementioned re-imagining of VAFB and Diablo Canyon, there are four more ambitious initiatives outlined in REACH’s 2030, its ten-year plan. They are: To attract high-wage industries, to champion regional planning, to spur investment in infrastructure, and to expand educational opportunities. The goal is to add 15,000 good-paying jobs by the year 2030. Why?

Because, according to the website, the Central Coast lacks the building blocks basic to a thriving economy for all: sufficient housing, adequate infrastructure, aligned education, and business expansion opportunities. As a result, “The overwhelming sentiment of the work-force is that making a life on the Central Coast is difficult and likely to become untenable for the next generation. An alarming number of our residents are struggling to get by, losing hope in the American Dream, and likely to leave the Central Coast.”

Designed to counter and correct this trend, REACH’s six initiatives are guided by five lofty principles: People First, Economic Resilience, The Long Game, Environmental Stewardship, and Rise Together.

Well worth the read, go to to learn more about the principles, initiatives, and collaborations being implemented right here, right now. It’s impressive and sheds both light and hope on the continuing conundrum of making a life on the Central Coast.

REACH is a nonprofit organization that seeks to engage the support of private sector leaders. It’s only through a regional, collaborative approach that its goals can be realized. James believes that the preliminary work already completed gives REACH the scale, the capacity, and the charge required to really improve the quality of life for everyone. She and Hackleman, the Board of Directors, and the forged partnerships already on board invite you to join them. Visit the website to learn how your time, your money, your expertise can help.

“Adding 15,000 new jobs that pay annual salaries of at least $50,000 over the next 10 years will … shift our jobs mix significantly toward a healthier balance,” says the REACH website. And “while the imbalance will not be erased by 2030, we can achieve powerful momentum toward the ultimate goal of providing one good-paying job for every working household in the region.”

And that, for Melissa James, is how she ensures that at the end of the day, the work she does actually improves people’s lives.