By Dan Carson
Does the City of Davis need new jobs?
No on A campaign leaders, who oppose the Nishi Gateway mixed-used innovation center, say the answer is “no.” They have proposed packing a lot more housing onto the project site and stripping out its office and research and development component. Why? They say the city doesn’t need any more jobs because we already have plenty of them at UC Davis, our largest and still-growing employer.
Never mind that their all-housing alternative for Nishi would never pass muster with other local opponents of development who don’t really want additional housing built there or anywhere.
Never mind also that the campaign to defeat Measure A actually means the end of one of this community’s best-ever opportunities for both new housing and economic development. There is no way any sane investor would again plunk down millions of dollars in permitting and engineering fees if a project this good can’t pass a Measure R vote on June 7. If they defeat Nishi Gateway, their alternative has zero chance of actually being built.
As it considers Measure A, this community should carefully examine the opposition’s core premise that Davis has all the jobs it needs and thus that we don’t need the up to 1,800 permanent new jobs that would be generated from Nishi Gateway.
Years of study and planning and consensus-building have been based on the premise that new jobs and economic development are critical to the long-term health of this city. I think they’re right, for a number of reasons.
First, our community’s overall jobs-housing balance is not where it needs to be. If you have too few jobs for your workforce, too many workers must drive out of town each day to outside communities to work, and then back home, increasing smog, greenhouse gasses, and traffic for everyone.
The theoretical ideal is a one-to-one ratio between jobs and the workforce (although there will never be a perfect match in a free-market economy). According to a city planning analysis, our city’s ratio of jobs is about .39 jobs for each Davis worker. That’s not very good. Add in UC Davis jobs, and the ratio is better at .82 jobs for each Davis worker, but not all of us can or want to work for the university. In reality, we are very much a bedroom community with a serious jobs-housing imbalance.
It’s no wonder that regional planning experts strongly favor Nishi Gateway. Many other workers could find gainful employment within our town, and avoid wasteful commutes, if only there were additional high-quality jobs here that were right for them. Adding 325,000 square feet of innovation center space on UC Davis’ doorstep, as the Nishi Gateway project contemplates, would add jobs for our residents.
Nishi is a critical step in creating an “innovation ecosystem.” Cut through the fancy jargon, and the basic idea is that Nishi would have the right size, configuration, and location of space next to the university to help transition brand new research and tech-oriented enterprises into small- and medium-sized businesses. From there, successful ventures will be able to move on from Nishi, hopefully elsewhere within the city limits, to become large-scale operations on the order of Schilling Robotics that would generate even more jobs.
Specifically, innovation centers like Nishi Gateway get us into the game so that we can compete in five “clusters” our community is targeting for jobs. (These clusters are clean energy technology, agriculture and food production, life sciences/health services, information and communications technology, and advanced manufacturing and materials.) Advances in these areas could make all of us healthier, reduce waste of water and energy, and improve the quality of our lives with new products and services.
Nishi Gateway would also help UC Davis to succeed in its research mission and promote the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. UC Davis is the economic backbone of our community, so it makes sense to collaborate with our largest employer.
Economic experts who have studied the Nishi Gateway proposal say a significant number of the jobs that will come our way if Measure A is approved result from its economic spin-off to other local businesses. Because the project is within easy walking and bicycling distance of Nishi residents and workers, it is likely to generate retail and restaurant business for our downtown merchants. It will also build up the city’s business-to-business service sector, which in turn will spur additional commercial development and new jobs for Davis.
We cannot be complacent about our town’s economic vitality. The very structure of our economy has been changing. We will need new jobs to take the place of some of the old ones that are going away. Notice that we needed a lot fewer bank tellers after ATMs came along, and how much retail commerce now occurs on the web? More such changes are on the way.
As I have previously stressed in these pages, economic development will generate significant new revenues that will help the City of Davis deal with long-term fiscal pressures for infrastructure and compensation of city staff. These substantial new revenues will also give our community greater fiscal resilience when the next economic downturn inevitably hits us. Remember: UC Davis does not directly contribute any sales or property tax revenues to the city, the mainstay of city budgets now and into the future. We need to make sure that we do not put all of our economic “eggs” in one basket. We saw in the last severe recession that cutbacks at the campus spilled over and affected the rest of our city economically and fiscally.
The kinds of high-quality employers we could attract to Davis would also make a difference in our civic life. Our charities, civic arts, and community activities depend on support from such local enterprises.
In 2012, city leaders, assisted by a UC Davis Extension program, produced the so-called “Studio 30” report that endorsed the concept of developing innovation centers in Davis. The report summarized well and succinctly why new jobs and economic development, and innovation centers like Nishi Gateway, are needed in Davis:
An Innovation Center creates jobs that serve current Davis residents, as well as sustain
existing community investments and support community values.
The greatest community benefits of an Innovation Center derive from job creation. An
Innovation Center can provide high-paying jobs for Davis residents, allow young people to stay in the community, maintain a base population of families with children to support the current infrastructure investments (like parks and schools), and bring additional funding into the City to sustain the high quality of life that the community values.
An Innovation Center in partnership with the University supports the community’s
commitment to leadership in the areas of sustainability and knowledge-based jobs.
Because of its proximity to the University and the education level of its residents, Davis is in the position of providing infrastructure that will allow for the development of UC Davis’s intellectual property and tech transfer programs, as well as community entrepreneurship. By nurturing start-ups and business growth in the community, the City of Davis could support advances in sustainable food, agricultural, energy, environment, and health and help bring new technologies and products to market.
By increasing job opportunities that fit with the skills of its residents Davis may be able to reduce the amount of residents commuting to jobs outside Davis. This would help the community meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and meet its General Plan and Climate Action Plan goals.
Nishi Gateway will bring us new jobs that we need. Measure A deserves our support.
Dan Carson worked for 17 years in the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser to the California Legislature, retiring in 2012 as deputy legislative analyst. He now serves as vice chair of the city’s Finance and Budget Commission. This commentary reflects his views only and does not represent the position of the commission on this issue.