People will tell me that I am too early on this assessment, or that I am speculating. I will admit to both here. However, as I will have been doing this for nine years come late July, just three months away, I have learned to trust my gut feelings.
There was a time when there seemed to be a clear momentum in Davis. The city had concluded a bunch of tough votes to clean up the budget, reform unfunded liabilities, move towards a sustainable budget and find a way to fund roads and other infrastructure.
At the same time, while it was clear that the city had a spending problem, it also had a huge revenue problem. Leaving aside the prolonged economic impact of the recession, there is the simple effect that we have relatively little retail business for a city of our size, and therefore we rely very heavily on the real estate market for city revenue.
The city saw an opportunity coinciding with UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who probably is the person who most clearly sees and understands the economic potential of UC Davis as a research and technology transfer power in the Sacramento region. As we noted two weeks ago, that train clearly will be leaving, whether or not Davis is on board. But the city has the opportunity to cash in on that grand vision by building innovation parks.
While the parks are relatively small, at 200 acres, they clearly go against the slow growth, protect the agricultural land trend that has been running the city of Davis, with few exceptions, since the passage of Measure J in 2000 – and probably even before that.
There was clear momentum in 2013-2014 – it started with the ill-fated Mace 391 which, while it failed, seemed to give real energy to the idea that Davis needed a tech-park. And so the city resumed its discussions, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer put forth an RFEI and generated the interest of three groups, two of which have filed official applications.
However, what we have seen since about July of last year is the stalling of momentum on a lot of fronts. First, the city managed to pass a sales tax, but originally the idea was to put forth a parcel tax to fund the roadways. Initial polling showed that the public (a) did not necessarily agree that there was a fiscal crisis, and (b) were not supportive of a parcel tax at the two-thirds level. Rather than put a small parcel tax on the ballot for November, the council decided to wait, and it does not seem that the idea has much traction at this point.
This is despite the fact that what the city is currently paying on roads – about $4 million – likely will, at best, hold things stable.
What about the innovation parks? We are starting to see some opposition emerge. Right now it is localized. But there also doesn’t seem to be a lot of community interest, at least yet. For instance, on the listening tour, an attendee reported that there were only six members of the public who attended the most recent one.
It is hard to read too much into that, as we often know that when there is a real proposal on the table, interest increases and we have not yet gotten to the EIR stage.
However, I think if it were my money about to go into investing in a Measure R project in Davis, I would commission a poll. There have been several polls that we know of in the city recently, and we also know that the developers commissioned at least one poll that was reported to us as being relatively favorable.
My poll would be somewhat different – it would be almost a reverse push poll. I would attempt to assess how likely people were to support an innovation park, whether having more than one park would make them less or more likely, press them on issues like traffic impact, circulation, the loss of agricultural land, etc.
There has not been a campaign yet – and I could be wrong, but right now there doesn’t feel like overwhelming support in the community for an innovation park. Perhaps that changes when we have more concrete proposals on the table.
More importantly, we have not really seen the city lay the groundwork for why we need innovation parks. There is no one really out there beating the drum on the fiscal shape of the city – in fact, more recently there seems to be a sentiment that the city is in better shape than expected. There is little discussion of the revenue gap for the city, the coming increased costs for pensions, water, and other infrastructure.
In short, for several years we were operating under the belief that we had a fiscal emergency, and now it seems that we have been business as usual with few major new initiatives coming to council and an overall lack of urgency.
Before investing potentially millions in the project and the Measure R battle, perhaps we need a better assessment that this is something that the city and community want.
—David M. Greenwald reporting