This week has been a welcome tour for new UC Davis Chancellor Gary May. New beginnings are a time of hope, and so now is a time for new beginnings.
We have pointed out over the last several months that back in 2014 there was great hope that Davis was on a verge of becoming a critical center of high-tech innovation. We had a well regarded Chief Innovation Officer, the Davis Chamber had a regionally respected CEO, the Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) process had put forward two innovation park proposals, and UC Davis was in the midst of its own tech-transfer and R&D boom.
One by one those things dropped off. But the arrival of Gary May signals once again a new hope. Chancellor May comes from Georgia Tech, which has its own Midtown Innovation District.
An article in the Sacramento Business Journal noted that Chancellor May “envisions a location similar to Atlanta’s Technology Square, a 1.4 million-square-foot, mixed-use development that’s home to startups, technology companies, researchers and a variety of innovation industries.”
“I am envisioning something like that here. Maybe not a complete duplication because we have different situations and cultures, but I think that could be a real beneficial situation for UC Davis and Sacramento,” Chancellor May said.
Of course, Chancellor May is envisioning this perhaps in Sacramento. After all, in June, he joined Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and others to go to Atlanta to tour their innovation district.
The chancellor noted that “Georgia Tech’s initial motivation was expanding for more space, but then the potential economic development and technology benefits became apparent.
“It took a fairly run-down, depressed area of the city and transformed it into a highly vibrant live, learn, work and play environment for not only the campus, but the entire community,” Chancellor May said. “Now it’s a destination.
“One of the benefits we didn’t envision initially that has happened is many of the companies are customers, clients, and collaborators with each other. The whole ecosystem has kind of evolved around that activity,” he said.
It is time once again to get the city of Davis on the map.
As Barry Broome who heads up the Greater Sacramento Economic Council put it, “There’s 174 university research parks in the United States. For us to have a university doing a billion dollars in research and not have a research park? It’s beyond a missed opportunity, it really is negligent. UC Davis is the missing link in this region turning a corner, because it has so much to offer.”
What is really negligent is that Davis had the chance to have the infrastructure in place and the space approved to make a push for this but, while we dithered on petty land use issues and squabbled over density and mixed-use housing, time has marched on and we are no longer in position to take advantage of great opportunities.
Think about it – those who are arguing that there is no market for this type of stuff, look at the big wigs trying to line up to get the university to back a regional tech park in Sacramento. Well, why not in Davis?
The advantages of Davis are enormous – we have land, we have an agricultural legacy and world-class soils, we have the university next door and the human capital already in place. All we need is the land to be approved and a catalyst.
Instead, what we have seen is the loss of the Davis Innovation Center when it became clear it was going to be a lift to approve. The Davis Innovation Center had the backing of world-class innovation center developers, Hines. That project has now moved up to Woodland, for the benefit of that community.
In the meantime, we still have the opportunity for the 218 acres at Mace Ranch Innovation Center.
I have suggested that as a great location to have the World Food Center anchor. While the World Food Center would be a university project, the remainder of the center would be startups and spinoffs that arise around that anchor tenant.
In the end, maybe UC Davis wants a more urban setting for the regional tech center, but we are talking about billions of dollars in potential revenue for the region – so why not get a share of that for our community, allowing us to have the fiscal sustainability we need?
It is not too late, but we need to jump on our opportunities while we have them. We can make a positive first impression on Chancellor May and the rest of the region, which considers Davis to be a sleeping giant but also right now an unreliable partner.
We need to start by fast-tracking a process for approval of the Mace Ranch Innovation Center and then build our case that Davis is the place for the Sacramento Regional Tech Center.
—David M. Greenwald reporting