Commentary: Where Can We Go with Economic Development?

Jumpstart Davis was an effort to create networks for startups and entrepreneurs

In my preparation for yesterday’s commentary about the downfall once again of the hotel conference center, I ran across a February 2014 article from Rob White, “Achieving the Vision – The Davis Economic Development Paradigm.”

The article came prior to the push by the city to put forward RFEIs (Request for Expressions of Interest) and get proposals on the innovation parks.

Now, three and a half years later, it is instructive to look back on the list of goals Mr. White, then the city of Davis Chief Innovation Officer, put out.

Focus Area 1 – Facilitate Technology and Business Development 

  • Advance the Development of an Innovation Park
  • Enhance Downtown Reinvestment
  • Encourage Densification
  • Facilitate Development of a Hotel Conference Center
  • Support Entrepreneurs and Startups
  • Establish an Innovation Council
  • Foster the Creative Class
  • Encourage Buy Local

While we have spent a lot of time talking about the downfall of the innovation parks, it is worth noting that the concept arose out of years of discussion about the need for additional commercial space – not only for startups but also for growing companies.

The Studio 30 report and the Innovation Park Task Force identified the need for space to be developed at Nishi (which has since failed), as well as at two potential peripheral spots that eventually produced applications which have since fallen by the wayside.

It is worth noting, while the Davis Innovation Center proposal is gone and MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center), east of Mace Boulevard, is probably not coming back, private investments from Sierra Energy into Area 52 and Fulcrum Properties at the University Research Park present the possibility of increased R&D space that would make up for the loss of Nishi.

Gone now as well is the possibility of a hotel conference center.  This was seen, as Rob White explained in March 2014, as a potential catalyst for the downtown core, as well as “the conference center will help to fill a gap in available meeting space in the community and create opportunities to host larger events in Davis.”

The hotel conference center on Richards Boulevard always seemed to be a project right on the edge of viability, and some have told the Vanguard that, even without the lawsuit, the applicants were already looking to downsize.

A report from Economic Research Associates has found that most meeting facilities lose money and “even in the rare cases where revenues cover operating costs in meeting facilities, they never cover debt service.”

That research suggests, “The profits from a convention or conference complex come from renting hotel sleeping rooms. What may not be observable in an integrated private conference center is that there is an internal subsidy occurring between the meeting facilities and the overnight accommodations.”

Having the space for large conferences still seems like an important goal, but the city is probably going to have to be a driver in the investment that makes it happen.

What becomes obvious looking at the list of eight concepts is that the city should focus on what it can do and can do right now.  There is nothing to stop the city from implementing the other six items.

I am going to focus on all but the “buy local” campaign.

We have already begun the discussion about the city’s update of the Core Area Specific Plan.  As we have discussed, the downtown is an area for potential growth that avoids the entanglements of the Measure R process, but will take quite a bit of work in order to work through differing community visions.

If I were running the Davis Chamber, I would focus my efforts on creating a vision for the downtown, bringing forward a community discussion and lining up stakeholders and investors to make it possible.

There is a lot we can do within the downtown that would avoid the contentious debates that will happen with peripheral development.

Second, the issue of densification will be contentious.  We have seen – with proposals for the hotel, apartments and Trackside – that densification will impact neighborhoods and existing residents.  We have generally argued that, given the growth drivers, there needs to be additional growth in the community and something has to give – you either have to build out or build up to accommodate even current needs.

The advantage of densification efforts in the core, however, may avoid at least some of those entanglements.

Concurrent with the Core Area Specific Plan needs to be a discussion about how high, how dense, and where density should go.

I suspect that the next big “battle” in town will be over the Core Area Specific Plan and densification – we already got a preview of that with issues raised around the Ace parking lot.

The second big focus needs to be on the next three areas: support entrepreneurs and startups, establish an innovation council and foster the creative class.  There have been some efforts here.  The city has invested in Davis Roots as a way to incubate startups.  Efforts like Jumpstart Davis have worked to push networking and fostering the creative class.

As the university enters a new era with Chancellor Gary May coming to town, there may be more chances to work with the university to create opportunities for the transfer of technology from university research to local startups and spinoffs.

That is certainly something that the city can and should help to facilitate.  And with the investments from Area 52 and the University Research Park, there should be sufficient space to help these startups thrive.

At this point, my view is that if we can build on those five things, working with existing emerging space and the Core Area Specific Plan, we can renew momentum for bigger projects like peripheral innovation centers and a hotel conference center.

Given the promise that existed in 2014, it is disappointing to see us have to backtrack, but perhaps the additional time will enable us to build more community consensus for the next and more ambitious steps.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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  1. Ron

    Regarding the photo accompanying the article, I’m guessing that we already have a Karaoke bar, at least.  (Including a “coach/instructor”, in the gray jacket.)

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