Analysis: Is There a Way to Move Forward on Economic Development?

Innovation-Park-example

I read a recent letter to the local paper which started out, “We seem to be at a crossroads, where our town needs a lot more tax dollars. I’m not comfortable with this situation, and I wonder how and why we got here. We’re an affluent community, yet our roads and other infrastructure elements continue to crumble, with no end in sight. I therefore assume that’s why we’re seriously considering ‘innovation’ centers such as the Mace Ranch project.”

It is striking to me that the community at large is finally coming to terms with the fact that three factors have led to an affluent community struggling. First, we made a series of bad decisions fiscally in the last decade that a lot of people either do not seem to understand or do not want to acknowledge. Second, the Great Recession has hammered everyone, and across the state infrastructure and roads are crumbling – Davis is no longer immune but it is hardly unique.

Finally, Davis does not generate the type of tax revenue that can and will help it to get out of this. We as a community do not seem to want a bunch of peripheral retail. Therefore, utilizing high tech and the university as a vehicle for economic development seems like a good approach and one that fits in well with this community – ag-tech, biotech, robotics, medical technology, environmental and green technology.

The writer then goes to what is a strange pet peeve that some people have: “First of all, using a fancy name doesn’t change the fact that this proposal is just a business park, with possible housing attached.”

It is seems unlikely that housing will be attached at this point, but the bigger point that needs to be addressed is the business park name. An innovation park is a kind of business park. It is a specific type. We are not looking to build a bunch of offices and warehouses. We are looking to house research facilities. Facilities that transfer the research developed at UC Davis into the market.

I do not understand why people have gotten so bent out of shape over the name “innovation park” – call it a research park or a high-tech park, but it is not projected to be a simple business park with a group of office buildings or warehouses put together.

“It’s a massive development, with absolutely no verifiable acknowledgment of the water and energy certain to be used by resident companies and homes.”

That is part of what we have to get to understand – what are the impacts? That is why we do things like EIRs and attempt to mitigate impacts.

“Worse yet, this project will cover beautiful, rapidly shrinking farmland.”

200 acres is a big development. On the other hand, it is a development that is already surrounded by a conservation easement. It is also possible that some of the food and agricultural technologies developed here will help make our farming more efficient and less water dependent. There is no certainty, but we are on the cutting edge of technologies that might help in world food production.

They continue, “Yes, the project would produce much-needed tax dollars, but at the unacceptable expense of what we hold dear about our town. We have a charming community, with a population of well-educated citizens. We have lots of green space, and the perimeter is surrounded by farmland. That should remain as is: Our community planning should not be changed in order to build this — or any other — ‘innovation center.’

“If we truly need more income to cover our expenses, we must find another way. If this requires higher property taxes, then so be it. We must be willing, as a community, to sacrifice some of our hard-earned dollars in order to keep our town in better physical — and fiscal — shape.”

I think this will be the debate that emerges – whether we are better off trying to develop business or increase taxes on property owners or utility users.

Part of that debate should be an understanding of the need for high end jobs for people who live in the Davis. If this is really a project that can generate $1 billion in economic transactions, then merely raising taxes is not going to help.

I think part of the problem goes back to the lack of community-based discussions with the larger community on the need for these kinds of innovation park developments – and the benefits that such development would have for the community, not just in the form of revenue to the city, but in terms of economic growth to the region.

Finally, I wanted to briefly discuss another argument I saw in a column in the local paper this week. It has to do with the certainty of change. There is no doubt that change is inevitable and that the community is not going to remain unchanged from how it was 30 years ago. As much as I am a slow-growther at heart, I would argue that change is a good thing because the community, when I moved here, had a lot of shortcomings – as it does today.

But aside from the reality that time marches on, the rest of the argument is really a straw man argument. The question is not whether we will change, but rather what kind of change we want.

Davis is going to have to make changes to meet its fiscal challenges. The direction of that change is not inevitable, however. We could choose fewer city services. We could choose to get rid of our parks and greenbelts and allow our streets to reduce to gravel and potholed dirt roads.

We could choose to finance our city services through a series of taxes – sales, parcel, utility user.

We could choose to finance our city services through peripheral retail and big box.

Finally, we could choose to attempt to create innovation centers –and once again, all innovation parks are business parks but not all business parks are innovation parks. An innovation park is a specific type of business park.

In any case, the voters are going to have decisions to make. Change is inevitable, the type of change is not.

—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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9 Comments

  1. Anon

    Worse yet, this project will cover beautiful, rapidly shrinking farmland.”

    It is my understanding that MRIC is not on prime ag land.  Someone correct me if I am wrong.

    I think part of the problem goes back to the lack of community-based discussions with the larger community on the need for these kinds of innovation park developments…

    There have been community-based discussions with the larger community.  Each of the developers held a series of public meetings.  And Mayor Pro-Tem Robb Davis and Council member Rochelle Swanson held three listening tours.

    The reality is that some in this town are against growth of any kind, and will dream up all sorts of excuses for why innovation parks are not needed.  This particular author thinks the solution to our city’s fiscal woes is to increase taxes.  What she fails to understand is 1) how high those taxes would have to be to pay for all the backlog of maintenance and repair work needed in this city; 2) that parcel taxes need 2/3 voter approval, which polls have shown will not succeed; 3) offers no alternatives for addressing city maintenance and repairs to infrastructure if the taxes fail to be approved; 4) is clueless that prohibitively high taxes will drive many citizens out of town because those on fixed incomes (like senior citizens) cannot absorb such fiscal hits.

    1. Don Shor

      It is my understanding that MRIC is not on prime ag land. Someone correct me if I am wrong.

      It is on prime ag land. But the land around it is protected. The north Davis site would not be prime ag land.

    2. Davis Progressive

      i don’t think that the community outreach system works – not for lack of trying, however.

      i agree there are some that are against growth of any kind, but i also think there are people who aren’t against growth of any kind who are raising concerns, and concerns have to be addressed.

  2. Frankly

    “Worse yet, this project will cover beautiful, rapidly shrinking farmland.”

    The existing city of Davis is on prime farmland.  I bet this author lives on prime farm land.

    Hypocrite?

    In CA we have much more prime farm land than we can farm.

    Around Davis we have already preserved 5000+ acres.

    This farmland loss fear argument as well as the sprawl fear argument paints the user as an extremist and not qualified to participate in any useful debate.

    1. Davis Progressive

      hypocrite?  so let’s say the government were going to take the tribal land from existing indians like the wintun nation locally.  does the fact that i might live on formal tribal grounds negate my ability to protest the present action?  that’s ridiculous.

    2. Don Shor

      This farmland loss fear argument as well as the sprawl fear argument paints the user as an extremist and not qualified to participate in any useful debate.

      The threat to adjoining farmland and the issue of sprawl were rendered moot by having Mace 391 in a conservation easement. Mace 200 is surrounded and cannot induce sprawl. Developing that acreage is a reasonable compromise, knowing that nearby land will not be subjected to development pressures.
      The author of the letter is not an extremist. She is a well-respected member of our community and is certainly qualified to participate in any debate.

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