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Meet Rebecca Unitt, City of Santa Cruz

Economic Development Manager, City of Santa Cruz

By Robin Doran | Published: April 2023

Rebecca Unitt: Pioneering Economic Development in Santa Cruz

In the vibrant coastal enclave of Santa Cruz, where the Pacific breeze mingles with entrepreneurial spirit, Rebecca Unitt leads the charge as the Economic Development Manager for the City of Santa Cruz. Her journey epitomizes dedication to public service and positive change.

Working at the nexus of urban planning and community empowerment, Rebecca served in 2023 as chair of Joint Venture’s Silicon Valley Economic Development Alliance (SVEDA).

Rebecca's early years in Riverside, California, instilled in her a deep-seated commitment to social justice and community betterment. Inspired by her parents' unwavering dedication to public good — her father is an attorney focused on social justice, and her mother an educator at Loma Linda University — Rebecca embarked on a path to make a meaningful impact in the world.

Growing up, Rebecca excelled at competitive Irish step dancing from ages eight to 18. She even danced at the World Championships in Scotland in 2002 and Ireland in 2008 and once ranked eleventh in all North America. While she no longer competes, she likes to surprise people on St. Patrick's Day.

Rebecca's academic pursuits led her to Cal Poly Pomona, where she studied urban planning before earning a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California. It was during her tenure at Cal Poly Pomona, and while interning with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and studying at Georgetown University, that Rebecca developed her passion for local governance and its capacity for immediate impact.

Transitioning seamlessly from academia to practical application, Rebecca flourished as she assumed roles at the City of Riverside beginning in 2011. She played a pivotal role in initiatives such as "Seize Your Destiny," a strategic plan aimed at revitalizing the city's economic landscape and learned the nuts and bolts of economic development from working in support of the City’s Business Liaison.

“I really fell in love with the city side of things,” she recalls.

“SVEDA is such an invaluable resource,” she says. “Being able to share knowledge and problems and knowing that we are all dealing with similar issues is powerful.”

In 2014, Rebecca and her husband, Roger Ruiz, an electrical engineer whom she met through mutual friends, embarked on a new chapter in Santa Cruz. She joined the City's Economic Development Department, and moved swiftly from Economic Development Coordinator to Manager, overseeing initiatives that championed Santa Cruz's unique brand of boutique economic development.

Rebecca embraced the intimate community ethos of Santa Cruz. Recognizing the inherent potential of turning passion into enterprise, she spearheaded initiatives that fostered entrepreneurship.

“It’s hard to live here, it’s expensive, we are somewhat isolated,” says Rebecca. But she also sees a strong upside. “People take their passion and turn it into a business – it’s much more personal and there is a work-life balance, an appreciation for the environment that surrounds us.”

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 presented Rebecca and her team with unexpected challenges. But they swiftly adapted to the new normal, implementing innovative programs such as the outdoor dining initiative, which provided a lifeline for struggling businesses and reshaped the city's urban landscape for the better.

Rebecca loves to solve problems. “I am definitely a rule follower but I also see where we can bend the rules and that is what has helped me be successful at what I do,” she says. “I love seeing businesses come to me with an idea and then go to their grand opening.”

“Rebecca has been a tremendous asset to SVEDA as a leader and as a resource to other cities...always available to share her insights and to help others.”

In her role as the outgoing chair of the Silicon Valley Economic Development Alliance (SVEDA), Rebecca has employed her collaborative spirit and dedication to knowledge-sharing to propel economic growth across the region. Through SVEDA, she has championed initiatives ranging from business improvement districts to strategies for working through the pandemic, solidifying her reputation as a visionary leader in economic development.

"Rebecca has been a tremendous asset to SVEDA as a leader and as a resource to other cities...always available to share her insights and to help others," said Kara Gross, executive director of SVEDA. "She is also our liaison to Santa Cruz, where we hold our annual conference. We collaborate every year to find the best experiences for that event, from hotels to meals to tours, and I appreciate her partnership greatly.

Rebecca and her husband with their dog

“SVEDA is such an invaluable resource,” she says. “Being able to share knowledge and problems and knowing that we are all dealing with similar issues is powerful.”

Beyond her professional endeavors, Rebecca's personal passions—including her love for running and cycling, travel and culinary adventures with her husband—underscore her vibrant spirit and zest for life.

As she continues to champion economic vitality and community resilience in Santa Cruz, Rebecca Unitt stands as a beacon of inspiration, embodying the spirit of innovation and collaboration that defines Silicon Valley and beyond.

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