Sunday’s commentary highlighted the move by UC Davis in collaboration with Sacramento and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to create a new technology and innovation campus called Aggie Square. The move comes after years of Davis attempting to get off the ground with its own innovation efforts, only to fall short – largely due to community opposition to housing and development in general.
In an editorial in the Sacramento Bee, the Bee editorial board naturally sees this as a positive, allowing UC Davis innovation to do for Sacramento what it did for Atlanta.
Writes the editorial board: “[I]t makes sense that UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg are redoubling past efforts to expand the university’s presence in the city, and, more importantly, to leverage UC Davis’ intellectual capital in ways that will diversify the regional economy.”
The idea is modeled after one that Chancellor Gary May helped when he was at Georgia Tech, the Tech Square, which “has used a pro-business mindset and the proximity to the university’s engineering talent to draw more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies and hundreds of tech startups to that city.”
The Bee further notes that the concept has worked in other cities like Pittsburgh, and Madison, Wisconsin, as well. They write: “Cities need jobs. Companies need research and development infrastructure and an educated work force. University researchers need places to scale and market their innovations.”
That was supposed to be what the innovation parks in Davis were supposed to bring to the region. But of course, if you never build them – they don’t come.
As the Bee puts it clearly in their editorial: “UC Davis has a top engineering school and not enough room in the surrounding community for growing startups.”
The Bee also points out that “the mutual benefit has to be made apparent. May’s predecessor as chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, spoke ambitiously during her tenure of creating a World Food Center in Sacramento, and perhaps of building a downtown satellite campus. Those ideas gained little traction, partly because the economy was still skittish, but also partly part because businesses weren’t
sure what was immediately in it for them, beyond a potential tenant.”
The Bee argues that Chancellor May’s approach “seems more tightly focused” with a firm timeline of initial reports back by April 1.
What the Vanguard wonders is whether this is really bad news for Davis. We reached out to some leaders in the Davis community to gauge their response. In order to gain a more candid response, we kept the questions off the record.
Some simply saw it as a bad development for Davis, but a great development for the Sacramento region, but others saw a more nuanced response.
But here’s the problem, maybe this isn’t about Davis at all – perhaps it is simply about UC Davis seeing an opportunity to tap into the Sacramento market in a way that it hasn’t before, other than the UC Davis Medical Center.
But one has to wonder if this would end up being a thing if the city of Davis had already approved Mace Ranch Innovation Center and the Davis Innovation Center and partnered with the university to expand the World Food Center into East Davis.
As one leader put it, it is obvious that the university is well aware of what is going on in the city of Davis. They see the endless battles over every project, the restrictive land use policies, and vocal opponents spoiling for a fight with them at every turn.
The demand to build more housing on campus may end up with more housing on campus, but it may also have collateral damage.
Every action to establish an innovation center would likely have strong opposition and lawsuits that at the very least would delay the implementation of the project and, at worst, would force the university and city to cut back on its size and scope.
As one person put it: “This is an extremely toxic environment.” And they added that “there is no welcome here.”
Others saw it as “Davis’ best hope at this point.” Their thought is that this could raise the conversation in Davis and perhaps gain interest as people and companies will come through Davis, see its strengths and the allure of going to the Davis community.
The key question is whether there will be a critical mass of people in the community, in city hall and on the city council that actually want to capture this moment, have the skills to do so and to get genuine and reliable support from the community.
My own view is that I think we missed our chance. The Davis window of opportunity was 2014. We had had a regionally respected chief innovation officer, we had multiple proposals for innovation parks, and the talk was that Davis was the sleeping giant and about to emerge.
Had we been able to strike quickly and find a way to approve MRIC and the Davis Innovation Center, UC Davis would have looked at us as a reliable partner and they would not have had to go over the causeway.
This isn’t ideal, and one reason the World Food Center proposal to Sacramento never really got off the ground, even before Chancellor Katehi got in hot water, is that Davis faculty didn’t want to cross the causeway to go to work.
The Bee points out that there are hurdles even now. “Transit is a big one. The commute between Sacramento and Davis is just long enough to feel like a hassle.” Moreover, “Picking a site could also be a quandary.”
The Bee points out: “The temptation might be to nurture several research parks, to leverage a range of UC Davis expertise. But one reason these ventures have worked elsewhere is that, by congregating in one spot, startups, researchers and bigger businesses also generate business for each other.”
At one point, UC Davis was looking at developing the southern end of campus, in Solano County, as a 1000-acre research park, but now they are looking at Sacramento – too bad Davis could never get its act together because it is still the best location and avoids a lot of the transportation and space headaches.
But the leaders are correct – as long as Davis has a toxic environment filled with pushback and lawsuits for all land use projects, UC Davis is going to have to look elsewhere and that means billions in revenue going across the causeway, while our revenue problems are filled either through tax increases or cutbacks in service.
—David M. Greenwald reporting