Commentary: A Bittersweet Reminder of What Could Have Been

The loft
The loft

When Sierra Energy announced during the Nishi campaign that they would collaborate to facilitate the construction of a R&D innovation center as a component of the proposed Nishi Gateway project, former Davis Chief Innovation Officer Rob White, who was hired by Sierra Energy, told the Vanguard that even if that project wasn’t approved, Sierra would be back with another proposal for R&D Space.

It turns out that Rob White (full disclosure, he’s a member of the Vanguard Editorial Board) was true to his word.  Yesterday it was revealed that Sierra Energy is announcing the formation of a new business unit to expand its research and development (R&D) space to accommodate companies and entrepreneurs throughout Northern California. This effort is an expansion of the existing Area 52 program, an industrial incubator and maker-space.

Sierra Energy — led by local entrepreneur, innovator, and UC Davis alumnus, Mike G. Hart — is a waste gasification and renewable energy company. Born from the UC Davis Big Bang competition, Sierra Energy is headquartered in downtown Davis and has R&D facilities in South Davis.

At the time, developer Tim Ruff noted  about Mr. Hart, “Mike’s commitment to Davis as a start-up mecca is apparent in his efforts with Sierra Energy and Area 52.”

Rob White, prior to being CIO for Davis, was the founder and CEO for the i_GATE Innovation Hub in Livermore and now he’ll be leading the effort as Executive Director for this project.

“The opportunity to expand Sierra’s current R&D facility is a major turning point in addressing the needs of entrepreneurs and researchers throughout Northern California. Very few off-campus facilities have the location and capability to address the immediate needs of innovators who need space to create prototypes,” he explains.

All of this I find bittersweet.  Mike Hart should be lauded for stepping up here.  As he puts it, “Sierra supports the creation of regional partnerships by establishing R&D facilities for innovators who need space for rapid prototyping and technology development.”

But this is now just about the only game in town.

In 2013, Rob White was brought into the city of Davis with great fanfare.  He was the chief innovation officer, having been virtually stolen from Livermore to bolster economic development in Davis.  And, while efforts to bring Mace 391 faltered due to miscalculations and land use difficulties, the early efforts seemed successful.

Davis revitalized the Innovation Park Task Force and the Studio 30 report focusing on three locations – Nishi, NW Quadrant and Mace 200.  An RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) brought three proposals and eventually two applications, and it seemed like we were off and running.  However, it was not to be.

The combination of risk brought on by Measure R requirements and the difficulty in financing R&D-only facilities proved fatal to the era of innovation centers for Davis.

First, it was the Davis Innovation Center which folded its proposal before it really got underway in the spring of 2015.  Then it was Mace Ranch Innovation Center, after being rebuffed twice, that folded its tents.  Finally, the voters rebuffed a more modest 325,000 square foot commercial and technology development space within the broader Nishi Gateway Way project.

For Mike Hart last April, he said, “Davis needs the Nishi Gateway Innovation Center’s R&D space in the pipeline to accommodate home grown businesses to provide additional housing for growing companies and to sustain our vibrant downtown.”

He saw “Area 52 as the first step in fostering innovation by attracting new inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses to the area with a space that provides them the necessary resources and tools to get established.”

“Area 52 is already attracting new talent to the region, driving us to consider what the next steps are to keep our success stories here in Davis,” said Tim Keller, UC Davis alumnus and founder of Area 52. “Nishi would provide the necessary space for companies to land upon emerging from Area 52 and UC Davis, enabling them to grow and stay for the long-term.”

As it turns out, Mike Hart, Sierra Energy and the expansion of Area 52 is all we have left.

Just three years ago Davis seemed to be on the verge of starting to realize its position next to a world class university.  Three years later, Davis has succumbed to narrow visions and financing difficulties.

Sierra Energy is all we have left at this point.  In their press release, Sierra Energy notes that “these enormous undertakings will make Davis and its surrounding area a hotbed of innovation beyond simply playing host to the University.”

Rob White explains, “We hope that SERP will fill a growing need, providing regional entrepreneurs with the same benefits and access to capital and markets long enjoyed by Bay Area entrepreneurs.”

We hope so as well.  However, as we have analyzed over the years, the city of Davis has a revenue problem and the innovation centers were a way to generate new tax revenue in a way that would be in line with the community values of Davis.

High-tech spinoffs from the university tapping in AgTech and clean energy production seemed perfectly in line with the progressive sensibilities of Davis.

While I remain excited that Mike Hart and Rob White are keeping this vision alive, it is with a sense of bittersweet sorrow that we must recognize what we have lost and may never recover.

—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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41 thoughts on “Commentary: A Bittersweet Reminder of What Could Have Been”

  1. Tia Will

    Area 52 is already attracting new talent to the region, driving us to consider what the next steps are to keep our success stories here in Davis”

    “…will fill a growing need, providing regional entrepreneurs with the same benefits and access to capital and markets long enjoyed by Bay Area entrepreneurs.”

    I do not share David’s sorrow over “what we have lost and may never recover”.

    First, we did not “lose” anything that we already had.  We did not even lose any future options. Our community simply made the decision not to move in a particular direction at this particular point in time. This certainly does not preclude us, or our children or their children from moving in that direction in the future should we/they desire to.

    My thinking is much more in alignment with Rob White’s more optimistic view for the future of the region than I am with the much more restrictive and narrow vision of “keeping our success stories here in Davis”, which for me does not represent the broader view of sharing our assets with the broader region, state and beyond. For me, when one has a great asset such as the university, the goal should be to share and spread ideas and innovations as broadly and widely as possible for the benefit of all rather than hoarding them.


  2. Misanthrop

    Start ups don’t generate much  revenue or philanthropy. Its the growing and mature companies that provide that wealth to the community. Companies of larger size are what we still don’t have additional infrastructure for in Davis. Start ups are great but they don’t pay the bills for the cops, parks and roads.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      That’s why the dispersed innovation strategy called for utilization of existing space, short term expansion at Nishi, long term either at NW or East, perhaps both.

        1. Mark West

          Still waiting to hear what the alternative strategy for meeting our unfunded obligations will be, yet there has been not a peep from the CC or CM on where we go from here. Even less from the No crowd. Lots of noise about what we shouldn’t do, but nothing constructive about actually meeting our obligations.


      1. Robb Davis

        A few things that the City Council discussed at its recent retreat or that I have proposed elsewhere:

        1. Use GP update to revision existing retail spaces to incentivize further development/revenue generation capacity.

        2. Protect current commercial spaces in a period in which there is NO speculative commercial development happening (think Panasonic) so that it is not converted to housing.

        3. Hotels

        4. Use GP update to reduce barriers to redevelopment of DT and along the 5th Street corridor

        5. Produce parcel tax options that include new monies directed to roads/paths and parks (preparing for parks parcel tax renewal scheduled for 2018–expect discussions starting early next year)

        6. Reduce costs by examining alternative service delivery methods for parks/rec services

        7. Increase fees for all city services (done)

        8. Change investment policy to generate more revenue from holdings (done)

        9. Propose some form of community broadband to increase speeds and reliability (key to many businesses’ needs)

        10. Assure a full accounting of revenue lost to properties moved off tax roles due to University occupation of spaces–to engage in productive conversation about commercial space needs for UCD going forward and how to not degrade city services.

        No magic bullets here but these are things that are within the control of the City Council, unlike the elements of the dispersed innovation strategy, which we shepherded for 2 years, and in one case, sent to the voters.

        No doubt about it, we are in a difficult situation.  Last evening’s FBC meeting looked at actuarial estimates for pension contribution growth.  Next month the FBC will focus on OPEB.  These are challenging times for our City.

        1. Chamber Fan

          Hi Robb,

          Appreciate the acknowledgement that these are challenging times.  But do I see in your list the abandonment of the Dispersed Innovation Strategy?  There is nothing in there about expanding or working with the university on an R&D park, etc.

        2. Frankly

          Thanks Robb.

          I think you have been one of the CC members that wanted housing at MRIC.  What have you learned from holding that position in this Measure R “empowered” city?

        3. Frankly

          Oh, and the giving of a precious and valuable 400 acres of city-owned land to the Yolo Land Trust.   Have you learned anything that might change your opinion that Mace 391 was a giant mistake by the City?

        4. Mark West

          “A few things that the City Council discussed…”

          Herein lies the problem. “The City Council discussed.”

          The fiscal problem predates the current CC and is not their ‘fault.’ The fact is, however, that we are more than a decade into realizing that we have a problem and all the CC has to show us is that they continue to ‘discuss.’ Even worse, though, is that when the CC finally ‘acts’ it often makes the situation worse, as happened with the hiring of the current City Manager and the approval of the recent MOUs. The CC majority, along with the majority of the residents of Davis, are acting as if they are in complete denial of our unfunded obligations.

          There is but one real solution to the City’s fiscal problem and that is to control costs and increase the economic vitality of the region by expanding business development. Tax increases are a necessary stop-gap, but not a stand-alone solution. Everything else is just a band-aid, or worse, more hot air. It is time to find the votes and start acting to solve the problems. We have had years of discussions, the CC’s job now is to lead through their actions.

        5. Robb Davis

          And… I think you missed the “done” on a couple of items above.  The two we passed could bring in an extra million per year.

          Hotels in two weeks.

          Everything else WAY beyond “discussion” stage except alternative service delivery models.

        6. Doby Fleeman

          Chamber Fan,

          How might you suggest the Chamber approach the challenges associated with a City Council and Community which by all appearances has an insufficient command of the causal factors underlying both our low per capita retail sales and our anemic, private sector technology employer base?

          How can we reasonably expect different results from the conversation/debate if we do not first recognize both the limitations, as well as realistic opportunities, based on our existing geography, land use policies, community demographics and economic potential in the context of the region?

          It is well and good that our Mayor is deeply involved in conversations concerning the fiscal challenges facing our community – but what about the flip side?   Will knowing the magnitude of “lost property tax” associated with state owned/leased buildings, or knowing the magnitude of “sale tax leakage” associated with on-campus retail purchases and sales, provide us with the tools to better understand new pathways to prosperity?

          Do we really have to wait to get those reports to undertake a more comprehensive inventory of our strategic strengths and weakness as a cohesive economic entity within the context of our region?  Is it not possible to do both/and?  What prevents us from taking stock, taking an inventory and then developing a strategic plan accordingly – one which is built around our unique community strengths, character and resources?

          I ask you:  “Will a General Plan update really help to address these fundamental questions?”

        7. Mark West

          “Run for City Council Mark.  My seat will be open.”

          I was not elected to solve these problems, Robb. The last thing the City needs is another two years of inaction while waiting for yet another round of ‘discussions’ with a new CC.

          “Everything else WAY beyond “discussion” stage”

          If that is the case, present the information that way and not as a list of things that “the City Council discussed…or that I have proposed.” I don’t have your insider view of the information and therefore only respond to how you have chosen to present it. If you want credit for the good work the CC is doing, then show us what you have accomplished, not just what you all are considering talking about.

          “The two we passed could bring in an extra million per year.”

          The ‘lead’ that you ‘buried’ with your focus on the politics of a pipeline 1500 miles away.

        8. Robb Davis

          Mark – Wow.  Quite a take down.  Insider view?  What I have accomplished?  Bury the lead?

          I am very hesitant to take credit for anything in a 5-person form of government but you seem unwilling to admit the work we are doing.  I pointed out two of the most recent examples of action and you denigrate another action taken the same night.  I list other things we are actively working on and you describe them as “discussions.”  Okay, I chose the wrong word to lead my response but there is plenty of action there.

          Hey at least you are not posting anonymously.

          And Doby–If you need me to explain why I am working on the things you clearly feel are a waste of time I am happy to sit and discuss them with you.

          I think you have this wrong:

          …a City Council and Community which by all appearances has an insufficient command of the causal factors underlying both our low per capita retail sales and our anemic, private sector technology employer base?

          I think we understand the causal factors well.  We simply do not live in a command and control economy.

        9. Grok

          I have to say that although I do not all ways agree with the Mayor, I think the treatment he is receiving in the comment section of this story is overly harsh.

        10. Mark West

          I’m not trying to ‘take you down,’ Robb. I am pushing you to lead, to talk about the things the CC is doing to address the City’s fiscal problems, and especially to tell us what you (all) have accomplished (together). What you posted was a wishlist with a few items checked off. It isn’t what you are talking about that is important, it is what you are accomplishing.

          No matter how you want to parse it, political posturing about national and international issues should not be a priority for the City Council nor anything that one should consider as an accomplishment.

        11. Aspen

          I’d like to point out that the bike route along Olive Drive, heading west from the exit point for the old highway 40 bike route, until you reach Russell Blvd, is in terrible shape.   Worse, if there’s a car parked on the side of the street causing you to ride on the street, riding on the street is literally like riding over railroad tracks.  I believe the road and all the pot holes need to be repaved.  This is the worst road I’ve biked through in Davis, and it is the main bike route connecting central/west Davis with Sacramento.


          “5. Produce parcel tax options that include new monies directed to roads/paths and parks (preparing for parks parcel tax renewal scheduled for 2018–expect discussions starting early next year)”

  3. Robb Davis

    I am not suggesting we abandon it CF but I am trying to be pragmatic.  I worked hard on two of the three projects and they came to naught.  I am trying to focus on what I can do but, no, I will not say I have abandoned them.  Why not ask the Nishi and MRIC proponents what their plans are at this time.  Sometimes I feel like folks want the CC to make these things happen: I don’t own the land and I don’t take the risks.  I receive proposals and try to figure out how to make them work for Davis.  I can’t make these folks do anything, I can only work with them if they are interested.

    Frankly, I feel you are unwilling to pay attention to what I have said: it was not I who said MRIC needed housing, the proponents did.  EPS did. Commercial real estate people I talked to did.  I was trying to figure out how to bring a project that could pass a vote and be feasible financially.

    I will not address your comment on the “400 acres,” since you are clearly traumatized by the whole thing and I do not want to trigger any further sense of loss for you.

    1. Frankly

      I will not address your comment on the “400 acres,” since you are clearly traumatized by the whole thing and I do not want to trigger any further sense of loss for you.

      This will make me chuckle all day.  Well done!

  4. Mike Hart

    wow… only in Davis can something so cool be greeted by a wake!  Truthfully folks its going to take time to develop an innovation culture, it will take several years at the least.   We are on it and other good projects like Nishi can follow.   “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  -T. Roosevelt

    1. Doby Fleeman


      Kudos, kudos and more kudos!   And, by the way, thanks for your business – it sure helps a business like ours and the lives of our employees to have a business like yours in town!

      If only we had more with your perseverance, vision and commitment to commercial success in our midst.

      It’s truly encouraging to see your personal and financial commitment to creating new avenues of opportunity for our visionary creators and leaders of tomorrow.




    2. Grok

      Mike. Glad to see a project that fits with existing zoning and can work to expand Davis’s innovation culture. I look forward to learning more details and offering congratulations on what sounds like a good project based on what I know so far.

      But no comments on Nishi until we see details of any new proposal. I  would not call the last proposal a good one.

  5. Chamber Fan

    Doby – I think the Chamber needs to have an annual set of objectives/ goals and lobby council as a counter-weight to the Harrington-Samitz no growth group.  For starters, an economic development strategy.

    Robb – I’m not trying to bust your you know what’s, what I want to see if economic development as a top priority and either that is re-instating Studio 30/ Dispersed Strategy or something to replace it.  But it needs to be there at the top, omnipresent or we’re never going to get there.

    Mike Hart – just keep going and don’t listen to the naysayers.

    1. Don Shor

      re-instating Studio 30/ Dispersed Strategy

      Three of the sites appear to be off the table at this point. Do you want to reconvene the task force to assess any other locations where economic development can occur?

    2. Don Shor

      From the Chamber Board president’s message in the recent newsletter:

      1. Add 10,000 high tech jobs.
      2. Increase commercial space from 1,750,000 square feet to 4,000,000
      square feet.
      3. Take action toward a 400-space parking structure downtown at the
      3rd/4th/E/F city-owned parking lot.
      4. Help our community and city government to focus on raising revenue,
      especially when new expenditures are proposed.
      5. Create a university strategy group to help guide the future of Davis.

      I will be curious as to how the Chamber proposes implementing these goals.

      1. Doby Fleeman


        How about if we start by asking folks like yourself if they they are good and worthy proposals for discussion.

        And, if not, why not.

        And, if not, then what would be your list of priorities and why?

        Same questions to you Chamber Fan.

        These are very specific goals that Don quotes.

        Is the best we can expect from the business community to ask questions like:

        How does that Chamber propose to implement these goals and I’d like to see something more specific?

        When we have a current atmosphere in which we are hemorrhaging expenses and devoting all of the oxygen solely to discussion of the symptoms (i.e. the hemorrhaging of expenses) and none of the conversation to why, why, why and what courses of action are realistically available to help counter the damage by increasing our dosage of economic vitality.

        It’s going to take more than hotels.

        We have a Finance & Budget Commission.   We have no Economic Development Commission.  What does that tell us about our priorities?

        1. Doby Fleeman


          Good question.  Maybe David will put it on his commentary wish list.  In the meantime, you might want to google Form 700 for some bedtime reading.

        2. Davis Progressive

          doby, could be wrong but didn’t they get rid of bedc when they re-launched the innovation park task force in which case, the council should look into re-upping it.

  6. Doby Fleeman


    IMO, perhaps as a Subcommittee, but not as a Commission – unless or until they remove their abundance of caution approach to application of Form 700 disclosures requirements for all members of all commissions.

    While never a member of that commission, it was my observation that when CC/City Attorney moved to adopted that interpretation, which is several years ago now, that by and large all active business and property owners quietly resigned.

  7. SODA

    All things innovative seemed to stall when Rob White left. What is the role of his replacement? (sorry do not know her name)

    She does not seem to be as visible as Rob in engaging the community and nudging us along to accept innovation centers, etc.

    1. Doby Fleeman

      Our current CIO is Diane Parro.  From my perspective, the focus of Diane’s work has involved a rebuilding and strengthening of relationships within the local, Downtown business community and she has been both effective and successful in these efforts.

      Her’s is a very different focus than the one for which Rob was recruited.  The focus of his efforts was Economic Development and the mechanism was via the Innovation Parks Task Force and RFEI mechanism.  His efforts were likewise action and results oriented and fully supported by then City Manager Pinkerton.  Pinkerton was inward facing, White was outward facing.  Unfortunately, the results speak for themselves.

      Some would blame this on White, but for my money the failure lies principally with our failure during the RFEI process to fully and accurately convey the true nature of the economic challenges, and opportunities, still facing the community. And, subsequent to Rob’s departure the conversation and leadership on the issue has died.

      Fortunately for us as a community, however, Rob White’s full time day job continues to focus largely on Sierra Energy’s homegrown efforts to encourage local economic development.  In addition, Rob serves on the Board of the Davis Chamber.

      In my view, your question is valid and really does beg the question as to what the City and CC intend to do to address the continuing challenges related to economic development in the City of Davis.  A General Plan update would not be my first priority under the circumstances.


      1. Robb Davis

        I disagree Doby.  I have laid out the economic challenges facing this community in stark terms.  The innovation park model was fully supported by the last CC and we moved it ahead aggressively, brought one project to a vote and went as far as we could on the other.  You can blame everyone you want but I wonder exactly how Rob White would have made a difference.

        The reality is, it takes hard work to move from a concept like those embedded in the RFEI to a vote and then to an actual project.  The City absolutely did its role.

        My problem, as I have stated elsewhere is that for two years we conflated economic development with innovation parks. There are many other things we can and should be doing (and ARE doing contrary to what people on this blog seem to believe sans evidence) to promote economic development in a time when no new commercial development is happening (will you blame the City for the failure of the Panatonni project to launch?).

        I laid out a vision for economic development months ago in an article here.  It was written with an eye to the constraints we face: passing projects that are subject to a public vote.  Right now the City is working within the space of what is possible given real constraints.  It appears that it is considered unacceptable to name those constraints.  Naming them does not imply “giving up” on the innovation concept but it does take two to dance and there are no dancing partners at this time.

  8. Doby Fleeman


    Apologies but I have very spotty cell service at the moment.

    If you read my preceding exchange with Chamber Fan and Don you will see the questions which I believe were critically missing from the RFEI process.


  9. Edison

    For what it’s worth, I think the Mayor’s comments throughout the day have been “spot on.” I know he is hard working and open to suggestions from all Davis residents. Given the negative comments made to him and about him today, I think it’s a wonder that civic minded people like him ever decide to run for public office. For the meager pay, one has to take a lot of grief.  My thanks to Robb for hanging in there and “sticking to his guns.”  It’s a thankless job.

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