Commentary: Is the City Committed to Economic Development?

Nishi-Gateway project
Nishi-Gateway project

Reading John Meyer’s very brief excerpt on economic development from his broader report on the city of Davis was a bit eye-opening. In recent years, the city of Davis has appeared to move forward on a new vision for economic development.

We had the Innovation Park Task Force, which commissioned Studio 30 out of UC Davis. That report recommended the city engage in a dispersed strategy that would bolster existing resources, built up the downtown, make use of existing space, and then focus on Nishi and two possible peripheral sites in the east and west.

Those efforts did not seem to be going very far until about 2013 when the city first brought in its Chief Innovation Officer. After the failed Mace 391, the fuse was lit and within months of the second rejection by the city council, Rob White had council approval for the RFEIs (requests for expressions of interest) which brought forth actual proposals and applications for the sites identified by Studio 30 to the east and the west.

The council was clearly supportive of all of this in July of 2014. However, while council has laid out some ambitious goals regarding economic development and Mayor Dan Wolk has put economic development as a centerpiece in his “Renew Davis” initiative, the question that John Meyer raises is an interesting one.

He writes, “The current investment in economic development activities may not yet be sufficient to meet defined Council objectives.” Mr. Meyer continues, “The Council’s goals are reliant on successful economic development efforts that will result in diversifying the local economy, capturing emerging research-based businesses and improving the tax base.”

The city has put some resources into this. As Mr. Meyer points out, “In support of economic development activities, a previous Council created a Chief Innovation Officer position. Not only was the title of the position unique, but originally, partial funding support for the position was to be provided by the business community.”

One of the big questions has always been how much has the Chief Innovation Officer done. While the desire to quantify government performance is laudable, some things are difficult to quantify. As Mr. Meyer puts it, “Economic development officials share something in common with governors and presidents—it is difficult to quantify their contribution to the economic activity, but they often get credit or blame depending on economic trends.”

While there are many people in the community that have been working on this issue and have prioritized economic development, from the efforts of Councilmember Swanson to the efforts of Davis Roots, the Chamber, and now JumpStart Davis, the real traction in this area can be traced, in my view, to the creation of a Chief Innovation Officer.

From the start there has been controversy. The city had originally agreed that techDavis would pay half of the CIO’s salary, however, when residents raised concerns about potential conflicts, the position was brought in house and techDavis simply sent money to the city.

These concerns have apparently not disappeared. Mr. Meyer indicates that “[t]he interview process revealed some concerns about the salary level of this position and what its actual output has been.”

However, John Meyer, who while at the university was on the forefront of UC Davis’ expansion in these areas, remains a strong supporter of economic development.

In one of the most strongly worded parts of his report, he writes, “While this leads some to question this expenditure, I believe the City should ‘double-down’ on its investment in economic development activities.” In other words, the city should not back off of its investment in economic development, it should do more.

The next part is critical – it is a point that Councilmember Rochelle Swanson has made in public and privately many times. We now have the entire region’s attention. The region is watching us and while Mr. Meyer did not state it, the region is waiting for Davis to mess this up.

As Mr. Meyer puts it, “The City is developing a reputation of supporting business development. A number of major businesses have chosen to locate in Davis. Should the City now dim its focus and investment in economic development, that action will be broadcast throughout the region by your competitors.”

John Meyer puts it a bit more elegantly but the message is still the same – the region is watching and if we back off our commitment, then the region will take full advantage.

He writes, “While our regional leaders are all polite and publically supportive of one another, any move by Davis to reduce investment in economic development activities will be branded as a lack of support and will be whispered by surrounding communities to businesses under recruitment.”

John Meyer concludes this section, “Davis has assets that other communities envy, but only Davis can tell this story—do not expect others to do this on your behalf.”

The bottom line here is that Davis has an opportunity right now. UC Davis is believing it will be an academic power for the next century. The Chancellor of UC Davis on these very pages has laid out a vision for that future and Davis can reap the benefits from it.

However, if Davis backs off its commitment due to controversy, land use issues or political infighting, West Sacramento, Woodland, Solano County and Sacramento itself are waiting in the wings.

As I have stated here previously, it is obvious that UC Davis is not going to wait for Davis to get its act in gear. And while I have a lot of questions for John Meyer on the rest of this report, this two paragraph segment rings very true, and it coincides with what I have been hearing for some time.

The question that we have to ask is whether the city is committed to economic development. Those who adhere to the Dispersed Innovation Strategy need to remember that the key finding by Studio 30, which developed that strategy, was, “The current isolated and dispersed sites that are available and appropriately zoned are not adequate in terms of size, location, or configuration (and related constraints) to address the emerging market need of an Innovation Center.”

To do this, the city needs the staff and support to be able to handle both the land use matters as well as working to attract new business to our great community.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “Commentary: Is the City Committed to Economic Development?”

  1. Davis Progressive

    i’m glad this topic is being revisited and focused on.  it’s a good lesson that over-the-top comments are distracting to an important issue.  so let us put it this way – positive way – what steps is council willing to do to signal to the region and potential investors that davis is serious about economic development?  i hope the mayor pro tem is reading this and will respond accordingly.

  2. Robb Davis

    DP – Encourage David Greenwald to invite me to sit down for an interview and I will share what we are already doing to create deeper relationships with the University, develop our critical infrastructure for the future, further promote densification  to create a truly “dispersed innovation strategy”,  create more fiscal resilience and understand the limited role government plays in creating an ecosystem that encourages start-ups to develop and thrive.  I am available for an interview next Wednesday morning.

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