Earlier this week, someone sent me an article from Governing entitled, “Do Cities Really Want Economic Development?”
In it is presented the idea that cities and regions continue to struggle because they are getting “exactly the results they want” and, as they put it, “Maybe they actually don’t want economic development.”
The article recounts a joke from economist David Friedman: “Two economists walk past a Porsche showroom. One of them points at a shiny car in the window and says, ‘I want that.’ ‘Obviously not,’ the other replies.” As they explain, “That is, if the first economist had really wanted the Porsche, he would have bought it. Our choices tell us more than our words about what it is we really want.”
As they note, “The civic world is obviously more complex than this simple joke. But given the persistent failure to change the trajectory of so many places despite the enormous time and energy — not to mention vast sums of taxpayer money — spent on it, it’s worth pondering the possibilities.”
This brings me to a point made by one of our posters yesterday: “Agraquest would have liked to have stayed in Davis. They didn’t want to go but there wasn’t any place large enough to meet their needs in the Davis city limits. They were a victim of measure R. They would have spent lots more money to stay but the impediments to growing here were too great and much too time consuming. Agraquest was a huge loss for Davis. Deny it all you want but losing a $400,000,000 business is never good for your local economy. The sad part is the total lack of reflection on the part of the nimbys about what we might have done differently to retain that company. You just want to shrug and say it was inevitable instead of asking what should we be doing to prevent it from happening again. We are really lucky Schilling really wants to be here because otherwise we would be relearning about measure R the hard way.”
The more I see the Measure R blame, the more I believe it has become a crutch and an excuse rather than a justification. After all, we have been talking about business parks and economic development in Davis for a long time.
Just in the last five years we have seen D-Side, The Business Park Land Strategy, The Innovation Park Task Force, the Studio 30 Report, Bill McDonough, and most recently Rob White and the Chief Innovation Officer. There is a common thread here – we have talked the talk and, up until Rob White had the audacity and foresight to put out RFEIs and actually got applicants to the table, it has been just that… talk.
In October 2010, the City of Davis released its Business Park Land Strategy. It recommended three things: pursue development of Nishi/Gateway and the downtown; process the application for the ConAgra site and 20 acres of business park land; and move forward with peripheral sites for future business park developments. It also set up the Task Force that would become the Innovation Park Task Force.
Two years later, the Innovation Park Task Force recommended that the council accept the Studio 30 Davis Innovation Center final report which included most of the same recommendations that were contained in the Business Park Land Strategy.
That was November 2012, and by March 2013, the city hired Rob White as Chief Innovation Officer.
It is easy to blame Measure R for the fact that by the summer of 2013 there were few if any sites that could accommodate the needs of AgraQuest, but for several years we studied the issue and took no action.
You can argue that Measure R made it more difficult to advance from ideas to projects, but we didn’t even try. We have two examples of Measure J – the 2005 Covell Village project that was massive and failed to mitigate impacts for traffic, and the 2009 project that was mired in the heart of the real estate collapse.
We ignore that the city voted to allow Wildhorse to be developed and, in 2006, the voters narrowly approved Target.
You can question Measure R all you want, but really I think until the last nine months we were content not to develop economically. Measure R became a convenient crutch for not putting ideas into action. The fact is, we studied the issue to death from 2008 to 2012 and had zero to show for it.
So what changed?
The first catalyst was the loss of AgraQuest became a shock to the system. Immediately after the loss, the Vanguard interviewed Chamber CEO Kemble Pope and Davis City CIO Rob White.
As Rob White explained at the time, “I think it’s an immediate setback in the sense that we lose the impact of those jobs. We lose the impact of having a large, global, national entity investing in our community.”
But the key, he said, is that we now need to find ways not to allow the loss to become more than it currently is, which is a company that could not find a spot in the city of Davis that served its needs. What he wants to avoid is that the loss of Bayer comes to be interpreted as “the city or the region can’t retain investment of corporations like that.”
“Bayer in West Sac is fine,” Mr. White said. “It’s not optimal for Davis, but it’s great for the region. Bayer not investing regionally is problematic.”
The second key event was the failure of Mace 391. Ironically, I believe that the failure of the plan coupled with the community discussion that emerged convinced a number of people, myself included, that in fact we do need economic development.
I have put out this idea many times and it is a very simple one. If you look at the city’s finances, you realize something has to change. We have three choices going forward. We can cut city services, cut employee compensation, and lay off employees. That may help us in the short term, but I think it will also decrease the value of the city.
We can pass five year incremental tax increases and slowly price the rest of the middle class out of Davis.
Or we can put in a few hundred acres of business park land and take advantage of the economic engine of the university and develop a new revenue base, while keeping the charm and character of this community intact.
I think we can sell the public on this vision – as long as we have cool, innovative business parks to attract them to.
I think Measure R is a strength, not a weakness. While the Cannery is a decent project, I don’t think it would have passed Measure R. But had it come under Measure R they would have had to go to zero net energy, they would have had to put forward numerous more innovative features and I think it would have been a world class development that the community would have supported.
I believe we need economic development, but I think we need great projects too. So I am hoping the Measure R process forces the developers to really seek out what the community wants, find out what this city needs, and deliver that in a way that we can all proudly get behind the project.
That is how we move forward. But I think it took the setbacks to get us from the talking phase to recognizing that we were going to lose critical signature companies and their accompanying jobs if we did not get serious.
And it is amazing. Rob White’s RFEI did in one month what numerous committees, task forces and reports could not do in five years – get us not one but three projects coming forward. That was not a Measure R problem, that was a commitment from the leadership of this community problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting reporting