Economic Development Series: Learning from the Past and Focusing Forward on the Future of Economic Development in Davis

Innovation-Park-exampleBy Jim Gray

Our efforts to do a public private partnership incorporating community based planning focused on economic development has not yet come to fruition, and may I even dare assert has failed.

The RFEI process started with enthusiasm and transparency to address real community needs and take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate to create innovation centers.  The process stimulated and attracted a mix of world class local, regional, and national developers.  Then the enthusiasm and vision gave way to process, silos, and then slowed in pursuit of perfection and consensus and led to a stalling out.

If you measure results in terms of how many meetings and how many special hearings to create a forum to just say “no,” it was a great success.  If you measure results by investments in new infrastructure, the creation of community amenities, by the leveraging of those investments for additional success, and by attracting partners to make additional investments, by my estimations we have failed. But we don’t need to wallow in failure.  We need to get up and try again in better and smarter ways that will increase the probability of success.

The developers found themselves needing to spend inordinate amounts of time focusing on political consultants and polls in addition to the monumental tasks of figuring out good design, creative architecture, infrastructure that works, and of course making sure the economics justified the investment.  Important investment for our community’s and the region’s future have floundered and will likely be made elsewhere.

I was initially very pleased that the landowners and the developers with the help of their architects, planners, and advisors, developed great concepts and demonstrated a true willingness to embrace a process with the City of Davis and the citizens of Davis.  The strong momentum at the start of the process subsequently came to a halt as the process continued.  I don’t want to believe that this is now the “Davis Way.”

 Of course, we have high standards and there is nothing wrong with that.  However, we have to create new models for how the public and private sectors collaborate for success in pursuing economic development and land use changes to support those plans. We need to measure public and private sector results by achieving goals and creating opportunities for the future within our City.

This situation is not unique to Davis by any means.  Collaboration between the public and private sectors to foster economic development requires defining and maintaining a common vision, establishing quantifiable goals, embarking on a well-defined process that includes clear timelines and milestones, which will lead to results.  In addition we must align the risks and benefits.  By collaborating we can achieve mutually agreed to results, but it also requires leadership, nimbleness and lots of hard work to stay on track and overcome objections and achieve great projects.

In Davis, our planning process is too often gripped by an obsessive focus on can we get everyone to agree? Can we do this without causing controversy?  We do this even though our City’s General Plan and Specific Plans and Spot Zoning/PD’s are out of date and too often in conflict with one another.

Innovation and community planning by its very nature needs to be authentic, creative, and to incorporate flexibility.  We can work to create a climate for innovation and success but let’s not bog down in micromanaging large projects that will have a 30-50 year life for their absorption and build out.

Success is not measured by creation and comment from 20+ committees, and hundreds of participants being asked their opinion on things that many have no expertise in.  It should not be measured by years of debate and thousands of pages of detail and comment.

How do we think we will be successful in attracting needed investment capital for infrastructure and risky long term investments if we make private sector participant/partners run a gauntlet of suspicion, innuendo, special elections, threats of environmental law-suits and myriad of other matters?  A description of the process and the players would make a great plot for an update of a Kafka novel.

Just this week, former Treasury Secretary, Harvard President and economist Larry Summers wrote an article which appeared in the Boston Globe and the Washington Post that described why there is crumbling infrastructure and why things rarely get done.  He was describing the process to update and rebuild a small bridge in Massachusetts but the description in many ways is synonymous with the situation we confront in Davis. Summers writes:

“I have an op-ed in the Boston Globe today on infrastructure, addressing the issue of quality rather than quantity of investment. … I describe the fiasco that has emerged from what should have been a routine maintenance project on the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River …. Though the bridge took only 11 months to build in 1912, it will take close to five years to repair today at a huge cost in dollars and mass delays.

 Investigating the reasons behind the bridge blunders have helped to illuminate an aspect of American sclerosis — a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, and each with their own parochial concerns.  All the actors — the historical commission, the contractor, the environmental agencies, the advocacy groups, the state transportation department — are reasonable in their own terms, but the final result is wildly unreasonable.”

 “At one level this explains why, despite the overwhelming case for infrastructure investment, there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly. The right response is to advocate for reforms in procurement policies, regulatory policies and government procedures to make the investment process more efficient and effective. This is all clear enough.”

 The names and local players are different in Boston than in Davis, but the approach and the results are the same.  I predict that the bridge will be repaired ultimately or fall down and I predict that economic development and innovation will continue to be driving forces within the broader economy.  Davis just might not directly benefit from them.  Our future, the future for our children, grandchildren and future residents might not be as bright in Davis and that would be a big shame for us all.

So what is next?  Clearly, I would recommend that we vote Yes on Measure A.  Let’s demonstrate to the region, to the University, and to ourselves, that we can support an innovative plan.  It is a plan that has been in the making for decades. It is a plan that will invest in needed infrastructure and amenities for future generations.  It is a plan that offers both housing and jobs with a mix of great design and community benefits.  It is not perfect, however it is in our City’s and the region’s best interests. It is a very good plan!

We must figure out how to reform our planning process. We need to embrace an implementation process.  Let’s reframe the questions and agree on what it is we want as a community. Let’s plan and develop with results in mind.  Let’s figure out how to do public private partnerships that work.  Let’s loudly say we want good schools, a strong downtown, good jobs, a reduced carbon foot print, and also say we want jobs, and innovation and a dynamic and growing economy.

Let’s extend opportunity and provide paths for a better future.  Davis is a fabulous community to be a part of.  We have a great University that attracts and trains a bright and talented work force and that fosters great research on global problems and opportunities.  Let’s leverage that and embrace it.  Let’s not blame the University  on our growth but instead let’s as a City plan to grow and innovate symbiotically with them. Let’s leverage what can be done best by the respective players. Let’s all try to be part of the solution.

We want to create a community ecosystem that isn’t afraid of change but embraces it.  We need to update our General Plan.  We need to be resilient and try again and again to create jobs, opportunities, and extend those to others.  We need to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurs to succeed.  We need public policy and guiding documents as well as elected, business, and community leaders that focus on success and outcomes. With those ingredients we can achieve economic development and a brighter future for Davis.

— Jim Gray is a longtime Davis resident. Senior Vice President with Cushman and Wakefield, and a commercial real estate broker and developer for over 30 years.


Editor’s note: following the decision by Mace Ranch Innovation Center to put its pending project on hold, the Vanguard decided to re-start a community discussion on the future of economic development in Davis.  As such, we are reaching out to a very diverse group of people and starting May 1 we are hoping to publish one op-ed a day on this subject.  We are pleased to announce that so far we have over 40 commitments and counting. Beginning today, we will publish one article per day for the month of May into June.  If you would like to add your voice – please submit your piece on the future of economic development in Davis (800 to 1000 words).

May 1: Robb Davis

May 2: Elaine Roberts Musser

May 3: Dan Carson

May 4: Matt Williams

May 6: Peter Bell

May 7: Bob Fung

May 9: Rob White

May 16: Alan Humason

May 17: Mike Hart

May 18: Judy Corbett

May 19: Mark Braly

May 20: Susan Rainier

May 21: Tia Will

May 22: Anya McCann

May 24: Bob Poppenga

May 27: Dushyant Pathak

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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22 Comments

  1. nameless

    Very interesting observations.  I agree that we are squandering our ability to provide well planned economic development.  But one of the reasons I believe that has happened is because we do not have a City Council and city staff willing to take a overtly proactive approach to economic development.  Council member Swanson has really been the only pro-business advocate on the City Council, and it has been an uphill battle for her every step of the way.  Other cities welcome economic development with open arms, while Davis as a city tends to remain “neutral”.  If our fair city really and truly wants economic development, then City Council members and city staff must get behind robust well planned economic development, rather than sit on the sidelines when projects come up and simply force the developer to do all the heavy lifting of campaigning for the project.  Citizens cannot feel confident in an economic development project if City Council members and city staff are not actively in support of it.

    I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating.  The city made a huge mistake in letting go CIO Rob White, who constantly put a supportive message out there that the city was serious about inviting well planned economic development to the city.  Then the city gave a mixed message about how well the city was doing from a budgetary standpoint, undermining the need for innovation park tax revenue.  As a result, the message for economic development has fallen off, and the exciting momentum that had been building has been lost.  The City Council needs to do some serious introspection on how it conducts business (pardon the pun), because what it is currently doing is not working.  The Davis Innovation Center proposal will now be located in Woodland, and who knows what is going to happen in regard to MRIC.

  2. Frankly

    Good deep thinking fodder.

    I think the fundamental point being made here is that we achieve inadequate progress in infrastructure development and business development supporting the improvement of economic vitality because of:

    1. Lack of adequate vision and plans;

    2. Inefficient and broken decisions processes;

    3. Too many regulatory hurdles;

    4. Too many competing interests;

    And I would add a fifth… lack of public-side leadership with knowledge, experience and credentials in the subject area.

    We simply need to tackle all five unless we want to live in an increasingly decrepit and declining place where our future generations can only desecrate our gravestones out of anger for making such a mess of things.

  3. Michael Harrington

    Maybe some residents just don’t share the same vision as Jims.   Win some, lose some at the ballot box.

    But Nishi different. This one could wreck the entire southern access to our downtown

    Vote NO on Nishi

    1. The Pugilist

      “But Nishi different. This one could wreck the entire southern access to our downtown”

      Yeah, no hyperbole there.  Not to mention, you argue that the southern entrance is already wrecked.

  4. Tia Will

    Jim

    First I want to thank you for a very thoughtful and respectfully written article. I have a few comments.

    1. “Collaboration between the public and private sectors to foster economic development requires defining and maintaining a common vision, establishing quantifiable goals, embarking on a well-defined process that includes clear timelines and milestones, which will lead to results.”

    The phrase ” establishing quantifiable goals” stood out for me. Part of the problem that I have had consistently with the “grow as fast as we can” camp as well represented by Rochelle Swanson is the failure to acknowledge that there might be some optimal growth limit. One poster has repeatedly told me that this is a nonsensical concern. I disagree. Our “free market” economy is based on a “more is better strategy”, but there is rarely any acknowledgement that there might be any downsides to rapid growth beyond the capacity for reasonable assimilation of what is added and ongoing reassessment of whether more is really necessary. This is not a realistic view given that there is a “bust” side to our “boom and bust” economic cycle.

    My second objection is the deliberate picking of winners and losers based on who already has enough money and/or influence in our economy. The epitome of this for me was the example of the local laundry that “the city could not help” vs the attempt to develop an industrial park specifically so as not to lose a local business ( Schilling) in the words of Rochelle Swanson who stated (paraphrased) that the first step in developing the business community was not to lose what we already have.

    2. “the exciting momentum that had been building has been lost”

    I do not see exciting momentum for a mutually agreed upon strategy being lost. True, the momentum for two projects ( DIC and MRIC ) has been lost. But there is still the possibility of Nishi which I see as the only one of the three that really met more than one stated goal for our community. Nishi fulfills three needs in my mind. Centrally located housing. Conveniently located start up and small business space. An opportunity for addressing some of the transportation issues that have plagued the Richards/Olive Drive intersection ( improving it from the pedestrian point of view). In addition we still have Davis Roots, Jump Start Davis and a number of other projects to do what I see as exciting for the community which is to serve as a geographic focus for young developing enterprises generated in many different areas of expertise present at UCD.

    3. “But one of the reasons I believe that has happened is because we do not have a City Council and city staff willing to take a overtly proactive approach to economic development.  Council member Swanson has really been the only pro-business advocate on the City Council”

    I see this as a good thing. I know that you are a local developer/businessman and so I think that it is only natural that you and I see this differently. I respect your point of view, but do not agree with it. The City Council members from my perspective should be elected to serve all members of our community, not one specific constituency. When you imply that the city council and staff should take an overtly proactive approach to economic development, what I hear is you advocating economic development as your highest priority. But, it is not my highest priority. Mine is the health, safety, environment and holistic well being of all of our community members. While economic development can be beneficial to my overriding concerns, it is certainly not always so, and is sometimes very controversial as we see with Nishi. I would vastly prefer that city council members weigh not only the economic well being as Rochelle consistently does, but the holistic well being of our city when making their decisions as I believe that Robb Davis and Brett Lee consistently try to do…..even when I do not agree with their decisions.

    1. Frankly

      “grow as fast as we can” camp

      I would be right in arguing that this camp does not exist in this town except in the political narrative of the anti-growth camp which is alive and well… no, strike that second point… many of them are not well.

      If Davis ever had a “grow as fast as we can” camp… those people would have picked up camp and left long ago.

       

      1. Michael Harrington

        Without the political give and take this town has gone through since the 70’s it would have been wrecked long ago.  It’s already teetering over the abyss.  Many of the facilities and programs that people take for granted today were yesterday’s pitched battles

        1. The Pugilist

          Adding a small housing project or tech park isn’t going to wreck the town.  Anymore than adding Mace Ranch or Wildhorse wrecked Davis two or three decades ago.

    2. Mark West

      “The epitome of this for me was the example of the local laundry that “the city could not help” vs the attempt to develop an industrial park specifically so as not to lose a local business ( Schilling) in the words of Rochelle Swanson who stated (paraphrased) that the first step in developing the business community was not to lose what we already have.”

      The laundry was rundown and had become an eyesore while creating a public nuisance with the non-client crowd that ‘hung out’ around it.  It provided no jobs and little tax revenues for the City.  Schilling Robotics provides many high-quality jobs and millions in tax revenues. Your attempt to equate the two is more than a bit silly.

      1. The Pugilist

        I agree on Schilling, but the laundry place provided a lot of people without means a place to do their wash.  I guess that’s why a new place is about to open.

        1. Mark West

          I am happy to see the new laundry going in as the service was clearly needed.  The old business as it was being operated was not worth saving, however, especially as the landlord had a better option. It is not the City’s job to choose winners and losers, but we should provide space for new and existing companies to operate.

          Nobody is suggesting that the City needs to save Schilling Robotics, rather that we should provide space for the company to continue to thrive here.

      2. Tia Will

        Your attempt to equate the two is more than a bit silly.”

        And with this one sentence, you demonstrate your complete misunderstanding of my point. I am not attempting to equate the two. I am pointing out that one was much more in need of help than the other, and in our usual winner take all approach, we choose to “help” those who are already successful. We simply do not share the same set of values, and you are, as expected, dismissive of mine.

         

        1. Mark West

           “you are, as expected, dismissive of mine.”

          Your idea is that the City should step in and ‘save’ a certain business that lost its lease, and yes, I am dismissive of that sort of nonsense. The City has no business getting involved with choosing winners and losers, or providing protection from competition. The simple fact was that the landlord had a better option, which in my opinion, dramatically improved the ‘environment’ of the center.

          Schilling is not in need of being ‘saved,’ they will continue to thrive regardless of where they are located because they are a well-run business. By providing them space to grow, the City will, however, ‘save’ all of the great jobs for residents and high tax revenues for the City, to pay for all the bells and whistles that you continue to demand.

           
          The equitable solution would have been for the City to approve more commercial space around town such that the laundry business would have had the possibility of relocating.

    3. Jim Gray

      Dear Tia…

      Collaboration by and between the private sector, the public sector in a open and democratic manner is important.  Clearly, we can improve our efforts and measure our results…

      Our “free market” economy is based on a “more is better strategy”, but there is rarely any acknowledgement that there might be any downsides to rapid growth beyond the capacity for reasonable assimilation of what is added and ongoing reassessment of whether more is really necessary. This is not a realistic view given that there is a “bust” side to our “boom and bust” economic cycle.

      But Tia the case I am making is that to effectively implement  public private partnerships doesn’t require us to say “more is always better” or “to ignore that it is very wrong and risky to  pick winners and losers’ or to believe that we have repealed the business cycle.  We can talk openly and honestly and review the facts;  those facts are we have a critical shortage of jobs and housing within our city.  We have not been innovating when it comes to infrastructure.  We spent years studying our need for land use changes to stimulate the construction of facilities for the retention and growth of businesses responding to the University’s Research and education and training of great students. Then the City Council called for Developers and Landowners  to  respond to a Request for Expressions of Interest -RFEI and then the process faltered… My effort at writing the above was to point out that we could and should be better. The attitude on no growth and all change is bad has moved too far out on the spectrum… It is no longer about good planning and good design and mitigating negative impacts I’m afraid.  I have tried to make a case that we could do better if we sincerely want to have Economic Development.

      With regards to #3 in your remarks/response that quote is not mine.  It is not my style to blame or bash the Council or Staff.  They are amongst the best Council and Staff that we have had in decades.  Surely they, like you and I,  could improve and be better at times, and like most of us they would accept constructive criticism…. But that is not what I wanted to focus on and not what I wrote.  Those remarks should be attributed to another. We all need to be better learners, better listeners, better collaborators, and better leaders.

       …what I hear is you advocating economic development as your highest priority. But, it is not my highest priority. Mine is the health, safety, environment and holistic well being of all of our community members. While economic development can be beneficial to my overriding concerns, it is certainly not always so, and is sometimes very controversial 

      Finally, Tia …Economic Development is not my highest priority.  It is an important need in Davis …Providing access to healthcare and to safe and decent housing , and concern for the environment and stopping climate change as well as providing high quality education  and the opportunities to feel safe and secure in ones community as well as creating a community where every citizen will get an opportunity to share in our amenities and not be discriminated against because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation…Those are the priorities that I believe in. We will be a better City I believe if  we are not selfish and afraid of change and we see Economic Development as a means to achieving a better community.

      We can do this if we are willing to collaborate for a better future.

      1. Tia Will

        Hi Jim,

        those facts are we have a critical shortage of jobs and housing within our city.  We have not been innovating when it comes to infrastructure.”

        What you state as facts, I see as opinion. I agree that there is current a major housing deficit in the city, largely driven by UCD admissions policy. I do not agree that the deficit of jobs is critical. It is only critical if we believe that it is somehow our obligation to employee a larger percentage of UCD graduates that we currently employee. I do not accept this premise. I believe that it is perfectly fine for graduates to seek employment elsewhere and then return when a job becomes available just as many of us have done.

        Economic Development is not my highest priority”

        I was making this assertion based on your presentation before city council in which you put up a diagram that showed only two choices, growth or stagnation. It was at this same meeting that I challenged this belief which I believe to be common and presented my comment that there is a third way. That third ways is equilibrium, and it is this balance that I would like to see Davis achieve.

        We can do this if we are willing to collaborate for a better future.”

        I agree but this will depend upon our ability to reconcile our differing views of what constitutes “a better future”.

         

  5. Michael Harrington

    Schilling thrives because it serves the hydrocarbon production industry. (The same oil and fracking industry that is polluting our local Assembly race with millions in outside expenditures.)

    If Schilling needs space and cannot find a better deal in Davis then they can move the plant expansion to nearby cities.  It’s completely stupid to blow up our little city and its slow growth policies to please one business, local families or not.

    I find the cheerleading, or “shilling for Schilling” to be somewhat demeaning to our academic community.

    1. The Pugilist

      And I find the shrugging off the tax revenue, jobs, and loss of a high tech business in this academic community utterly perplexing. Of course it doesn’t matter to you because you already own a home, have a business that derives its income from out of town, so you’d rather live in a small llittle hamlet and jobs don’t matter to you.

    2. Misanthrop

      Aren’t Schillings robots looking for those Egyptair black boxes? I thought they were involved in the search.

      And weren’t they used to help kill that BP oil well blow out in the gulf? Like any tool maker the application of the technology is often independent of the tool itself.

      I wonder Does Mike drive?

  6. nameless

    Tia Will: “I do not see exciting momentum for a mutually agreed upon strategy being lost. True, the momentum for two projects ( DIC and MRIC ) has been lost.

    DIC and MRIC never got a fair hearing by the community.  DIC took off for Woodland, and MRIC withdrew.  What DIC and MRIC did get was a threatening atmosphere from the no-growthers, and the City Council/city staff sat back and remained “neutral”. This is no way to support well-planned economic development, whatever one’s vision of that may be.

     

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