Last week, the Davis Planning Commission recommended certification of the EIR for the Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC). When I talked to Dan Ramos, the project manager for the project, he told me that they very much intend to bring a project forward on the site. It is difficult to know whether or not that can happen and even less certain whether the voters would end up supporting an innovation center without housing.
But what it does bring up is a sense for just how much things have gone sideways since 2014. It was at that time when councilmembers and business leaders alike rejoiced: “I think the word is out that Davis is ‘open for business.'”
But the door was about to shut.
While City Manager Steve Pinkerton announced early in 2014 that he would be leaving, the momentum seemed to continue when Chief Innovation Officer Rob White pushed forward the RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) that brought three proposals, two of which led to project applications.
In addition to MRIC, you had world-class developers Hines, pushing forward their own concept for an Innovation Center near Sutter Davis Hospital.
But the momentum for economic development in Davis, which seemed to peak around June 2014, would quickly start to recede. One by one the pillars of progress fell by the wayside.
At the city level, the hiring of Dirk Brazil brought the end of regionally respected CIO Rob White. Mr. White would quickly be hired by Sierra Energy, which is creating their own innovation center, but the city replaced Rob White with Diane Parro – a great person, but one who lacks the expertise and drive in economic development.
It was believed early on that Dirk Brazil was not a believer in the innovation park concept, and the priorities of the city have seemed to have waned in this direction.
The once promising two innovation parks projects have both fallen by the wayside, with the Davis Innovation Center essentially moving to Woodland, while MRIC is best described as on the brink of either a comeback or going away altogether.
Even the modest 300,000 square foot R&D space at Nishi fell by the wayside as voters, questioning things like affordable housing giveaway and the traffic study, narrowly voted against the project.
It is not just the city that is struggling. In 2014 it looked to the world like UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi had finally overcome the missteps of the pepper spray incident and put it behind her. But three years later, she is gone and UC Davis has dropped the momentum they had in 2014 on the front of technology transfer and economic development.
Gone are the big ambitious plans that UC Davis once had – can they be rekindled by Gary May, who would certainly seem to have the background? That remains to be seen.
In 2014, the Davis Chamber had just hired Matt Yancey as its CEO. Mr. Yancey had regional experience with economic development and the Sacramento Metro Chamber, but he lasted less than a year and the Davis Chamber finds itself in need of a new bolt of energy.
The landscape is not completely devoid of hope. We have seen private investment by Fulcrum Property into the University Research Park and Sierra Energy into Area 52, restoring some promise, but if the city is to really take advantage of its proximity to UC Davis, if the city is to really rely on revenue from economic development to shore up its finances, it needs the space for large and mid-sized businesses to grow and remain in town.
As Mike Webb noted on Wednesday during the Planning Commission meeting, “The largest currently available parcel within the city is just 14 acres. Even the vast PG&E site is 25 acres and there is no sign that (it) is actually available and (it) would be costly to repurpose even if it was.”
The 2012 Studio 30 report, in particular, noted, “The current isolated and dispersed sites that are available and appropriately zoned are not adequate in terms of size, location, or configuration (and related constraints) to address the emerging market need of an Innovation Center.”
What Davis needs is a new injection of leadership. One of the interesting things that Dan Ramos told me on Thursday was that he needs to find an anchor tenant in order to have a chance to move his project forward.
Implicitly, that tells us that Schilling Robotics, thought to be a driver back in 2014, has indeed taken a backseat in their expansion plans.
But, at the same time, this seems like the exact type of need that led to the creation of the position of the Chief Innovation Officer. The loss of people like Rob White hangs heaviest here.
The city council and city manager should be prioritizing getting the appropriate anchor tenant for MRIC. This spot could generate $10 million a year in revenue for the city. We’re talking about putting revenue measures on the ballot, but MRIC could help solve the long-term fiscal challenges from the city – and we have one last chance perhaps to prevent it from going “poof.”
The new start for MRIC coincides with the new chancellor for UC Davis.
Back when Chancellor Katehi headed up the university, she had a vision for putting the World Food Center and its billion dollar a year promise in the Railyards in Sacramento. That plan has fallen by the wayside with the demise of the former chancellor, but perhaps there is a chance to revive the plan and revive it here in Davis, with access to agricultural lands and only a few miles from the main campus.
With leadership and movement, perhaps the city of Davis could proactively clear the way for the potential billion dollar World Food Center going into one of its own sites – either in a new peripheral spot or in town. While the city would not generate the revenue from the WFC, the spin-offs and companies working adjacent to the WFC could be a huge boon for the burgeoning ag-tech and food security sectors in this community.
Local leaders have put food security near the top of the list of goals, and ag tech would fit in nicely with the community’s commitment to agricultural land preservation and innovation.
But unfortunately, right now I see no real leadership in this area within city government, in the business community itself or at the university.
Perhaps that can all change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting reporting