Getting Down to Business

economic-developmentby Rob White

There has been a lot of discussion recently on this blog and in the community about what is economic development, whom in the community is leading/doing these activities and what are the actions of the City. I would also propose that this is analogous to the old saying about Monday morning quarterbacking, which like the description implies, is done without context to the situation by those that have rarely been directly involved in the actions or decisions.

Let’s start by using an official definition of economic development from a recognized source of expertise, the International Economic Development Council (IEDC):

Let’s start by using an official definition of economic development from a recognized source of expertise, the International Economic Development Council (IEDC):

What is Economic Development?
No single definition incorporates all of the different strands of economic development. Typically economic development can be described in terms of objectives. These are most commonly described as the creation of jobs and wealth, and the improvement of quality of life. Economic development can also be described as a process that influences growth and restructuring of an economy to enhance the economic well-being of a community. In the broadest sense, economic development encompasses three major areas:

  •            Policies that government undertakes to meet broad economic objectives including inflation control, high employment, and sustainable growth.
  •            Policies and programs to provide services including building highways, managing parks, and providing medical access to the disadvantaged.
  •            Policies and programs explicitly directed at improving the business climate through specific efforts, business finance, marketing, neighborhood development, business retention and expansion, technology transfer, real estate development and others.

The main goal of economic development is improving the economic well-being of a community through efforts that entail job creation, job retention, tax base enhancements and quality of life. As there is no single definition for economic development, there is no single strategy, policy, or program for achieving successful economic development. Communities differ in their geographic and political strengths and weaknesses. Each community, therefore, will have a unique set of challenges for economic development.

(Excerpted from the IEDC’s Economic Development Reference Guide –

For something a little closer to home, we could use the California Association of Local Economic Developers (CALED) definition:

What is Economic Development?
Economic development means different things to different people. On a broad scale, anything a community does to foster and create a healthy economy can fall under the auspice of economic development. Today’s economic development professionals are trying harder than ever to define their field in terms that are more concrete and salient to policymakers, the public, and other professionals. There are probably as many definitions for economic development as there are people who practice it. Below is CALED’s definition as published in the Economic Development Handbook:
From a public perspective, local economic development involves the allocation of limited resources – land, labor, capitol and entrepreneurship in a way that has a positive effect on the level of business activity, employment, income distribution patterns, and fiscal solvency.
(Excerpted from the CALED website:

Or perhaps we could look at definitions as provided by the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), the League of California Cities (LOCC), the International City/County Manager’s Association (ICMA), the US Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC), or the Association of University Research Parks (AURP)? All of which I have been heavily engaged with for years, and in many cases, I have spoken at their conferences or workshops.

Regardless of the official source, I am confident you will find that economic development is a complex set of actions that result in both qualitative and quantitative outcomes and measures over significant periods of time.

For Davis, the staff have proposed a set of actions, outcomes and measures that are specific to our community needs and values and that will be deliberated by the City Council on May 13th. You can see these actions as they are being proposed on the city website under the April 22nd agenda:

(Note: this item was postponed from April 22nd to May 13th by the City Council to be able to receive a more in-depth report from staff and provide more specific input on the actions proposed)

Additionally, the city of Davis has two very experienced staff that are specifically working on the actions as defined above. Specifically, I have several decades of experience in property reuse and branding/marketing as well as over 12 years of local government experience (directly in economic development). The work I have done has been recognized at local, regional, national and international levels while I was at both Sacramento County and the City of Livermore. I was also a Board member of CALED for 3 years, have been directly involved with the State of California’s innovation hub program, continued interface with GO-Biz leadership, and have been a regional leader in economic development both in Sacramento and the East Bay. You can see my work history and major accomplishments on my LinkedIn profile. (

In addition, Sarah Worley (our deputy innovation officer) has over a decade of direct economic development experience (much of which was accumulated in Davis) and even more as a planner. She has some significant local successes to count, including being a primary reason why Mori Seiki (now DMG Mori) located in Davis and was instrumental in helping Davis Roots get their start. If you want verification, ask the executives of either organization.

I highlight these facts not because I am looking for accolades or recognition. Simply, you have some very experienced and regionally/nationally recognized staff at the City. It is disappointing that this needs to be highlighted again, but the dialogue on this blog and in the community that continues to work to undercut the fact that Davis has a top notch economic development team at the City is a mystery. Especially when the questions of outcomes and actions come from individuals who have very little (or no) experience in economic development. It’s analogous to paying to go to a Tier 1 university and then complaining about the education. Why pay for a top tier education and then undercut the exact thing you paid to be part of?

Instead, I propose that the time wasted in complaining about the efforts in the past be used to partner with the City to identify ways that each and every one of us can help to move the economic development effort forward. We have much work to accomplish in literally turning the Titanic before certain doom on the economic iceberg, so why not be part of the solution?

Communities like West Sacramento, Roseville, Folsom, Sacramento and Elk Grove are making concerted efforts to highlight their successes and diminish their defeats. And their expectations are realistic in realizing that success isn’t measured in days or weeks (or maybe even years). And they are vocal about their future goals, even if the development or business isn’t completely locked in… they recognize that good news about future opportunities will attract more opportunities.

We can’t process a proposal for a hotel conference center in a few days, but anyone directly involved with the effort can tell you that the applicant is moving quickly to bring a project to the community that will make Davis proud and provide a needed amenity that has been discussed for over a decade. Similarly, a year ago we were talking about the possible need for an innovation park, but now we are discussing a demonstrated need and timeframe. For a community that hasn’t had any material growth in about 15 years, these are important evolutions. And let’s not forget that the Cannery mixed-use development will be the most sustainable new residential neighborhood (without a federal or state subsidy) anywhere in the region (and possibly California).

To further demonstrate that the economic development program of the City is progressing rapidly, I would highlight that staff generated a new Innovation and Economic Vitality Work Program and companion Action Plan. These documents are meant to be living efforts, easily changed during each 6 month reporting period. Both of them will be discussed and deliberated by City Council on May 13th and the staff will begin execution shortly after approval. Some of the highlighted actions are already in progress and are highlighted as a milestone of actions to date.

And to be sure that we are working consistent with work programs that have had results nationally and globally, I have asked for (and received) input from regional, national and international organizations. I want to be sure that after listening to the community input for the last 12 months and assessing how to craft a program that meets the Davis values, that we are also executing a program that incorporates best management practices.

While I am in Washington DC next week for the Sacramento Metro Chamber Cap to Cap trip, I will personally be meeting with the CEO of IEDC to specifically discuss the Davis Work Program and Action Plan. I will be discussing best practices for technology-based economic development, building of an innovation economy, partnering with research institutions and additional suggestions on national and global examples of success.

I offer these brief highlights and descriptions to engage the community in constructive dialogue, identification of contextual solutions and hopefully a recognition that City staff are working hard to bring about the economic sustainability of Davis. This is truly a community effort and requires all of us to work in concert, pulling in the same direction. It is easy to provide critique, but it is much more impactful to be part of identifying the solution. Please choose to be solution-oriented and use your precious time to offer collaborative insights instead of questioning the validity of economic development by the City.

I am hopeful that you will each help us accomplish the long list of desirable outcomes for economic vitality and fiscal sustainability. Thanks for considering these thoughts. I look forward to your comments and questions. My email is

About The Author

Rob White is the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Davis and was selected as a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Local Innovation. He serves as an ex-officio Board Member for techDAVIS (a local tech entrepreneur industry group), as an executive Board Member for the Innovate North State iHub, and as a Board Member for Hacker Lab and the California Network for Manufacturing Innovation. He is a candidate for the Doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California and has a Masters from USC in Planning and Development and a Bachelors of Science in Geology from Chico State.

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  1. D.D.

    Re: the need for another hotel in Davis:
    This might be similar to the need for more parking spaces. Maybe Davis needs conference roooms. But does Davis need more hotel rooms? I just went online to book a hotel for a visit to Davis. Most of the hotels in Davis had empty rooms.
    Re: your quote re: wealth:
    “These are most commonly described as the creation of jobs and wealth, and the improvement of quality of life.”
    Wealth is subjective. If I live in a little town where I know my neighbors, if I feel safe walking, in the evening, in downtown Davis alone, without my dog or pepper spray, I feel “wealthy”. IMHO, if my food is pure, and my air and water are clean, and I can walk or ride my bike & see trees and wildlife, I have a pretty good quality of life.
    Power point presentations in huge conference rooms don’t excite me and make me feel like you improved my quality of life.

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      The best evidence that there is sufficient demand for new hotel rooms in Davis, or at least new hotel rooms of a type not now here, is that private investors are presently building a much larger hotel in Davis (at Richards and I-80). Those investors and their bank, of course, could be wrong. But if they are, that is their money at risk.

      If they are right, that means more people will rent rooms in Davis, and that means the City will collect more in Transient Occupancy Tax. If they are wrong, the rest of us have nothing to worry about.

    2. Davis Progressive

      the hotel conference center caters to a different clientele. they would be looking for large conferences and the ability to draw big groups of people. we’re talking about half a million in potential revenue.

  2. Rob White

    DD – great points. I hope you would agree that those characteristics of safety, community, sustainability, whole food systems, open space and bikeways all have a price to establish and maintain. They require Police and Fire services, places to hold events and community gathering (parks and farmers markets), groups to advocate and process sustainability needs, education for agriculture and local food, purchase and maintenance of open lands, and the cost to establish and maintain bike paths and infrastructure. Those costs and the administration of these items are not insignificant and are not accomplished without specific revenue sources. I believe that is a primary point of economic development in Davis… can we embrace our values and grow our opportunities in ways that help us afford the things we like most about Davis.

  3. Adam Smith

    Thanks Robb for the economic development info.

    A couple of questions:
    1. Your article seems to describe a fairly passive city council that is simply reviewing staff proposals and suggestions. Do you think it appropriate for the CC to be more actively engaged in setting priorities and direction for staff? If so, are you getting appropriate attention and direction from our current CC?

    2. While I appreciate the big picture attempts (things like CAP to CAP) at economic development, I really think your and Sarah’s focus should be working with companies and industries who have “shovel ready” project for which Davis is a reasonable alternative. Can you please provide some specifics that your department is actively engaged in now that have the potential to deliver new revenues to the city in the next 2 years?


    1. Frankly

      Good questions Adam Smith.

      Related to your question number 2, I think it is very difficult to go out and talk to “shovel ready” prospects without ground to dig in. Therein lies my frustration and maybe it connects with your first point about a seemingly passive city council.

      Related to this. I am in the business of small business commercial real estate lending through a federal program. The market is down 40% over last year in California and much of the nation. In California much of the blame goes to low inventory… especially light industrial. There are several causes to the lack of inventory, but one of them is the lack of new commercial development over the last decade, and some of that is attributable to more California communities taking no-growth stances. In the Bay Area the problem is acerbated by a physical lack of developable land, and also a problem where the new tech bubble is gobbling up all available office space.

      So Davis is really in an enviable position where available commercial development land would be in big demand. But these things tend to go in cycles. And Davis does not have time to dawdle and satisfy all the anxieties of those nervous nellies out there.

      We need to be pursuing one or two business parks with urgency.

      I just don’t see enough urgency from our city council at this point.

      And we have a new crop of council candidates that are either against any peripheral growth, or are technocrats that will make a federal data project out of any decision… and delay, delay, delay.

      1. Davis Progressive

        “Davis does not have time to dawdle and satisfy all the anxieties of those nervous nellies out there.”

        they have no choice if they want to pass a measure r project

  4. Rob White

    Adam – thanks for the questions:

    Answer 1 – Council is supportive, but I think we are busy charting new territory for Davis (and much of the region), so it is difficult to expect them to provide too much more than they already do. We have set a work program direction, and assuming they approve it on May 13th, we will readily execute.

    Answer 2 – We focus on both. If we don’t have a regional presence, we will not be able to attract the kinds of investment and opportunities that we are looking for. Examples of current efforts include: working with several downtown businesses to relocate in to better spaces; working with six companies on expansion plans for space and job growth; working with a developer to build in two areas, both including about 30 to 40,000 square feet of flex space for tech companies; working with several regional lending institutions to start an angel investment fund directed at Davis; working with several local entrepreneurs to find funding and facility support; working with the university to identify companies coming out of research and incubation labs that would like to locate in Davis; working with three companies that have expressed interest in locating the national or global headquarters in Davis (100s of jobs over next 2 years); support to establish Hacker Lab (a makerspace) in Davis; support to Davis Roots, the university, and techDAVIS entrepreneur initiatives; providing support to the construction phase of the Cannery (as city manager’s office rep); working on Davis and Yolo County broadband solution… and of course Yolo Rail Realignment (which is more real than any of us might imagine).

    Does that help?

    1. hpierce

      In theory, very helpful… in reality, given ‘give-aways’ on fees and infrastructure requirements, what will the City net as far as revenues?

  5. Davis Progressive

    i think people other than frankly forget that council can only push things ahead so far. when they get too far in front of the people, covell village happens.

    i constantly read downtown business people complaining about the lack of support for the vision, but they seem clueless as to how to make their vision a reality.

  6. DT Businessman

    Thanks for the various definitions of economic development and the update on city staff economic development activities. I noticed mention of the City Council was almost entirely absent from your report, which begs a few questions:

    1) What is the impact of CC decisions on economic development projects and policies?

    2) What is the impact of CC members public comments, in and outside of the council chambers, on economic development projects and policies?

    3) What is the impact/influence of CC members on economic development projects and policies prior to said projects and policies coming before the CC?

    4) What is the impact of CC non-economic development initiatives and resource allocation therefore on economic development projects and policies?

    In the case of #4, I’ll give you an example so that you can provide a more informed response. Proper wayfinding signage has long been identified as an economic development constraint. March 25th CC meeting, CC member Frerichs was upset because the wayfinding project had yet to be concluded. What he failed to mention is staff did not have sufficient resources at their disposal to complete the project within the desired time frame (among other reasons). Another example, downtown zoning conflicts have long been identified as an economic development constraint. CC member Swanson recently expressed frustration during a candidates forum with the zoning conflicts not having been resolved by city staff and the Planning Commission. What she failed to mention is city staff and the PC did not have sufficient resources to even begin the task.

    I look forward to your responses.

    -Michael Bisch

      1. DT Businessman

        I can only speak to economic development. My daily dealings are primarily with Community Development, less so with Public Works, and even less so with the City Manger’s Office. There is insufficient time and insufficient funds. The CC assigns more tasks to staff than the man-hours and dollars available. The CC complains about staff not completing assignments all the while the CC keeps giving them more & more work to do. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I speak of not being able to prioritize and not properly allocating resources. This is not empty rhetoric; rather, a reflection of what I and my clients are experiencing on a daily basis.

        What this means from a practical perspective is when the CC is pursuing a plastic bag ban, they effectively have made the decision to not pursue a resolution of the downtown zoning conflicts or to not complete the wayfinding project (albeit this is a bit simplistic since different departments are involved). There is simply not enough time or dollars to do both.

        Another economic development project that is not moving forward for lack of resources is the CalTrans community identity program. The program has been identified as a priority, but there are no resources allocated to it.

        When Brett Lee says there is insufficient bandwidth to pursue the POU at this time, that’s not empty rhetoric. There is literally insufficient bandwidth. When the other CC members argue the opposite, that’s just political BS. They’re playing to a particular constituent. The only way the POU can be pursued is if staff let’s some other ball drop. Or vice versa. If the CC is saying a CalTrans community identity program is a priority, that’s just political BS. You can’t do both.

        -Michael Bisch

        -Michael Bisch

        1. hpierce

          To your point (I think) they give more to staff, want analysis/reports/recommendations in half the time, and halve the staff in development review and other professional areas. Good formula. Not.

    1. hpierce

      Think that should be “Rob”, not “Robb”… one is a City employee, the other seeks an elected office. May sound ‘nit-picky” but I suggest we watch our ‘words’.

  7. Michelle Millet

    Proper wayfinding signage has long been identified as an economic development constraint. March 25th CC meeting, CC member Frerichs was upset because the wayfinding project had yet to be concluded. What he failed to mention is staff did not have sufficient resources at their disposal to complete the project within the desired time frame (among other reasons).

    Weren’t part of the funds generated from the proposed paid parking plan on a limited number of blocks supposed to go to help fund the wayfinding signage?

  8. DT Businessman

    No, the funds for wayfinding had been earmarked prior to the Downtown Parking Task Force beginning it’s work. The wayfinding project has been hit by one setback after the other each requiring more staff time and more money all of which is not available. When this was brought up at a 2×2 my response was, “Really? We’re going to do all this marketing to bring visitors to Davis, but then let them wander around aimlessly looking for parking and their destinations.” Blank looks all the way around. All the while the CC is loading more and more tasks on staff’s plate. And then the CC has the audacity to complain about the wayfinding program not being completed. Hey, but we got more bandwidth!

    -Michael Bisch

    1. Michelle Millet

      The wayfinding project has been hit by one setback after the other each requiring more staff time and more money all of which is not available.

      Can I have an example of a setback?

      1. DT Businessman

        The consultant hired by staff determined the sign locations. A staffer who had inherited the project due to another staffer resigning then visited some, but not all of the sign locations. In a meeting he asked me to sign off on the project, but he seemed less than confident about the project. But he also said he was overloaded and he didn’t have the time to review every single sign location. I sympathized with the staffer because I didn’t have the time either (keep in mind, I’m a volunteer). Fortunately, Stewart Savage stepped up and did the heavy lifting discovering a number of placement issues (obscured by trees, wrong side of the road, confusing directions, etc.). Stewart’s comments where then conveyed to the consultant who said we had run out of contract hours. Cost overruns, way overdue, uncertain funding source, no signs, CC members complaining about an incomplete project. But hey! We got more bandwidth!

        -Michael Bisch

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