It wasn’t that long ago that Davis was on the forefront of the innovation discussion. Here we 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. That was 2014 – only three short years ago, and yet, it seems like a lifetime now.
But times have changed and while Davis still has potential as the host city of a rising university, it has lost some of the momentum that it had just three years ago. Concerns over neighborhood objections and land use battles led the Davis Innovation Center and the world-class developers Hines to pull out of a proposed innovation park. The local portion of that development team ended up simply moving a few miles up the road to Woodland.
Then the Mace Ranch Innovation Center, concerned about financing without workforce housing included in the project, ended up suspending their operations. While they have come back to get the EIR certified, there is no current project on the table and speculation exists that there will not be one any time soon.
The city also had the voters, in June 2016, vote down what was a 300,000 square foot R&D/innovation facility at Nishi. While Nishi has come back, it has done so with a student housing-only project.
On the positive side, from the perspective of economic development, is the fact that Sierra Energy is working on its own innovation center, and the Sacramento-based developer Fulcrum Property has purchased Interland with the idea toward densifying the newly-named University Research Park.
But, on the negative side, the long-proposed Hotel Conference Center was downsized greatly to a large meeting room, after litigation exposed potential financing problems with that project.
Opportunities have arisen with the change of leadership at the university, but the World Food Center, for example, has fallen onto the back burner and the new chancellor is focusing most of his efforts on Sacramento as the spot for UC Davis expansion.
One source told the Vanguard the ongoing attacks on UC Davis regarding student housing have taken a toll, as has the failure of the city to move forward on innovation parks. The result is that Sacramento is being eyed as the spot to utilize the power of the university, and, while Davis is not completely out of the conversation, it is an afterthought.
Many have pushed back against the idea of parcel taxes in Davis to pay for infrastructure and unfunded liabilities, but the alternative is expanding and diversifying the local tax base through
economic development, and that plan is on life support at this point.
As Davis has lost its drive and pretty much its proposed projects, it is now Sacramento that is moving forward.
This week, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and UC Davis Chancellor Gary May announced the Joint Working Group, whose hope it is to shape expanded university presence in the Sacramento region.
In a UCD press release, it says that they have “established a joint exploratory working group to create a framework for a new technology and innovation campus called Aggie Square. Aggie Square is intended to draw on UC Davis’ core mission of research, education and public service, as well as growing the economic vitality of the broader Sacramento region.
“The working group will focus on making recommendations to the mayor and chancellor in three key areas: potential sites within Sacramento to locate Aggie Square; potential city and state funding sources to support the effort; and transportation options to encourage Davis and Sacramento communities to actively engage with such a facility.”
While Davis is at least mentioned in this release, the message coming from the chancellor is about “how UC Davis can engage with Sacramento.”
In the meantime, there was announcement in the Sacramento Business Journal that new members of the mayor’s technology council were chosen.
The Business Journal reports: “A group of 19 people ranging from university presidents to entrepreneurs have been chosen to serve on the City of Sacramento’s Technology Council – an advisory body geared toward providing input to the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”
The plan is that the group “will play an active role in helping provide strategic guidance as the region’s technology sector, referred to as the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab, further evolves.”
This is the kind of work that we should be doing in Davis as well. While our focus has slipped in recent years, the good news is that if we build it – they will come. All is not lost. What we have not had, however, is strong leadership in the area of economic development and innovation.
It was disconcerting to listen to members of council talking about economic development in terms of hotels. The reality is that the one key advantage that hotels would have brought has been lost – the hotel conference center, which has been greatly downsized.
The city this year should appoint its own technology council with a specific mission similar to the one out of Sacramento.
We have a strong group of leadership at the university and in this community to create a strong team to help guide our thinking as we move forward. The previous iteration brought us DSIDE and the Innovation Park Task Force, along with the Studio 30 report recommending that we engage in a dispersed innovation strategy, which called for the development of existing space and the expansion at Nishi and also on the periphery.
We can re-examine such a plan in light of the Core Area Specific Plan, which could end up producing more space in the core area, the investment at Area 52 and University Research Park, and once again the prospects for engaging in a larger peripheral research or tech park. Perhaps the city can revisit the idea of a university-private-city partnership to help finance such an endeavor.
But most of this doesn’t work unless the community gets aboard the idea of a tech park. Without community support, a measure project will go down, and investors will go to Sacramento – and the brand associated with UC Davis will increasingly shift away from Davis and toward Sacramento as the focal point.
The university is going to move on with or without us. It is time for us to figure out what we want to be as we grow up.
—David M. Greenwald reporting