Sunday Commentary: As We Change City Planning Leadership – We Should Figure Out Economic Development

A lot of changes are in the works for the city.  This week we have seen three big ones, but there is more to come.  Within a few months, several more senior planners are reportedly retiring and that department will look completely different in the next few months, especially from how it looked this time last year when Mike Webb was the community development director and Ashley Feeney was his chief assistant.

One of the big pieces of news this week is that the city is hiring a finance director.  Given City Manager Mike Webb’s expertise on land use but not on finances, this was a move that made a good deal of sense.  But what didn’t make a good deal of sense is why we have gone nearly four years without one – during times of great fiscal challenge.

A second big piece of news is the more or less formal confirmation that long-time City Attorney Harriet Steiner is retiring.  At some point, we should probably revisit the fallout from the handling of the Picnic Day incident, because it has had a much greater impact than one might expect.

Finally, the city will be looking to make a hire to fill the vacant community development director spot.  Mike Webb is going to have the opportunity to almost completely remake that department in the next few months.  As noted a year ago, he was the director, but was promoted to city manager.

Ashley Feeney was the natural replacement for him, but this spring, he left to take another position in the private sector.  The city has brought in the very capable Heidi Tschudin to be the interim.  But now comes the time to fill that position permanently.  We have heard that, in addition to the director, at least three long-time planners are planning to step down in the coming months – that is some turnover in a department that long had great stability.

Planning and land use is going to be an extremely important issue in the next few years.  As we know, we have had numerous student housing proposals in recent years.  But there will be a focus on downtown redevelopment, mixed-use, and probably affordable housing in the coming months and years.

At the same time, one of the biggest questions will be what the city manager intends to do about economic development.  When the city of Davis brought in Chief Innovation Officer Rob White, they brought in a high profile, regionally respected individual who also had land use and other municipal experience.

However, when Mr. White left, the city replaced him with someone who lacked that kind of land use experience.  Economic development in the last few years has seemed to take a back seat to other priorities, but what is clear is that the way forward to job creation and revenue generation will be a robust program.

The city manager has two options – he can hire the next planning director to be someone with economic development experience, or he can create a second position – economic development director, or whatever label you choose to make the positions separate.

My preference would be to have a planning director with background in economic development, but to have a separate position as the economic development director.

One of the biggest problems in the previous position is that we made a tremendous amount of progress until economic development devolved into land use disputes, and so I think the city needs to look at ways to keep the two functions separate.

Along those lines, the city needs to create a new economic development director and it needs to be a high level position.  Why high level?  In order to function properly it needs to be autonomous.  One person I spoke to recently said that the EDD really needs to operate almost like an unofficial sixth councilmember – meeting with and working with the public.  The position needs to be insulated from political pressure and I believe separated from land use and other more political issues.

This is the key.  The EDD needs to focus on the vision of economic development, working to recruit companies and working with startups.  If they get bogged down in land use issues, they will be much less effective.

I have already presented one of my ideas on how to achieve this.  The basic idea is to create land that is set aside in a pre-approval process for innovation centers and commercial use.  In other words, we should go through the land use fight first.  We have our public process, we figure out what land use provisions we put on the spot, take it to a Measure R vote or the equivalent thereof and then turn it over to the EDD whose job it is design the space and recruit occupants.

This way the EDD does not have to micro-manage land use issues.  Put it another way, issues like traffic impacts, LEED certification, transportation, mitigation and the like are all important issues for the community to address.  But they are a distraction from why we have an economic development director.

The best way to fix that is to allow us to deal with those issues first – led by the planning department – and then turn things over to the economic development director.

Moreover, most folks wanting to build innovation centers are going to want to have a location that is more or less shovel-ready.

Look at the two recent examples.  In Davis, we had Rob White solicit for applicants through the RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) process.  That led to two good applications.  However, once the applications were made, the process got bogged down in land use issues.  Eventually, the Davis Innovation Center folded.  The Mace Ranch Innovation Center got its EIR certified but has basically suspended its operation.

In the meantime, the folks from the Davis Innovation Center moved up the road to Woodland, where they have a project that has already been approved.

Who is going to want to invest millions in Davis when they can get approval elsewhere in the region, within six to 12 months, with no heartache?

One way for us to get around that problem is to duke out the land use details first, and then bring in people to make it happen.

One thing that is clear, and talking with all five current councilmembers confirms it, everyone sees the need for economic development.  My one concern is that there is not really consensus on what that looks like – which is why the next hires will be so important.

—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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22 Comments

  1. Nancy Price

    Economic development does not just have to focus on companies and start-ups….whatever that means to David and others. David may be right to suggest separate the economic development from land use. But, imo, we also need to get beyond just thinking of innovation/business parks, monetizing R and D from the university, and attracting large corporate business from outside the area, etc.

    A major trend as part of the New Economy Project is a focus on advice and support for “small-scale” economic development that supports and empowers middle-class and lower-income individuals to start up community-based businesses that are often worker owned/worker managed. These strengthens community economic diversity, broaden the ownership and employment base and keeps dollars circulating within the community.  There are many examples of this type of local community development that grow into large self-sufficient operations now taking hold in communities/cities across the U.S.

    Economic development, funding and support must be made available for entrepreneurship and business development at all scales and including a variety of  imaginative ideas and concepts that provide for all aspects of a community’s needs, including all aspects of the arts. I would like to see an pro-active city economic development office that would provide this kind of advice, legal an other assistance, stewardship and support, not just work with established companies, chain stores and franchises  and start-ups pushed out from UCD.

    1. Jeff M

      Well written words that seem to spin a cloud of nothing realistic nor feasible.

      Can you point to another comparable community anywhere that demonstrates this vision of yours?

      1. John D

        Jeff,

        On the contrary, I find these words very encouraging.   Surely there must be some examples out there.  I’d also encourage Nancy to share specific examples from her experience.

        Even if they aren’t peer/comparable communities, perhaps we can glean or otherwise piece together an understanding of the key drivers and local resources within these communities that have resulted in these programs, their sources of funding, leadership structure and the professional/experiential qualifications of the the program administrators, etc.

        Be great if Nancy could share some of her contacts to help us jump ahead – avoiding some of the obvious pitfalls –  from their lessons learned and best practices for implementing and sustaining these types of initiatives.

        1. Jeff M

          Surely there must be some examples out there.

          This is key.  Because if they don’t exist, then the ideas are not feasible.

          Public policy tilted thinker like Nancy are only dreamers unless they have some leverage or known model for making these things happen.

          Public-private partnerships can work.  But the private side cannot be forced to take on projects they don’t want to take on.  This seems to be lost on people like Nancy.  I don’t know her background but she is obviously bright, and informed in the ways of government.  But I see a great big gap in understanding for how projects get done.  And since she is so bright and knowledgeable I start to see a hidden agenda.  I don’t consider myself a master of these things, but I simply run my mind through the steps required and see that there is a great disconnect.

          I stand ready to get behind any “small village” economic development plan if there is a proven working model for making it happen.  But my sense is that Nancy and her cohort are just singing this song because they don’t want growth.

        2. Tia Will

           Because if they don’t exist, then the ideas are not feasible.”

          Wow. That is some seriously limited thinking you are engaging in. Before there were antibiotics, people almost universally died of serious infections. Before there was transfusions, people frequently died of anemia. I am sure glad there were those who did not believe “if they don’t exist, then the idea is not feasible.” How about at least considering the possibility of some serious “innovation” in the business realm?

           

           

        3. Jim Hoch

          “How about at least considering the possibility of some serious “innovation” in the business realm?”

          From a scientific perspective more than 9,999 out of 10,000 mutations are harmful.

        4. Jeff M

          Before there were antibiotics, people almost universally died of serious infections.

          Not quite accurate.  You could have written that before Joseph Lister was listened to by all the stubborn doctors to sterilize their surgical instruments in carbolic acid, people most universally died of serious infections.

          Here is the problem with your sentiment.  And I covered it in what I wrote above if you were not such a stubborn doctor and would listen.

          Davis does have a high percentage of stubborn MDs and other stubborn people with doctorate degrees.  But on the topic of economic development, the leaders in the community of Davis are business and economic development neophytes.

          It is frankly a bit laughable to hear this type of idea given the gap in subject matter sophistication and knowledge between Davis and other communities successfully advancing their economic vitality.  Davis, with its cohort of highly-educated senior citizens, is highly unqualified on this subject matter.  As they say Doctor, you are practicing “medicine” without a license here.

        5. John D

          Jeff,

          Once again, I’d take you to task for attributing intentionality to Nancy’s suggestions.  I think it does a true disservice to our prospects for an open and constructive dialogue on the topic of economic development.

          I do acknowledge the problem you’ve identified, including what I might describe as a certain naivete in Nancy’s recommendations.   In fact, you and I might be saying the same thing only in different words, but from my perspective one of the greatest impediments we have faced in launching and sustaining a “reality based” discussion of the challenges associated with economic development strategies stems from these other factors you have identified – i.e. the sheer magnitude of the cultural absence of high-performing, for-profit, community-based businesses, together with their employees and community leaders who hail primarily from careers in such competitive fields as industrial engineering, manufacturing, or applied R&D.

          Literally, it is the very absence of such cultural influences and community voices, that results in very one-sided conversations – often devoid of the essential elements commonly found in communities featuring more diversified employers and economies.  Without these private sector practitioners influencing and informing conversations at the local coffee shop, school boards, city councils and commissions –  it should not be surprising our community perspectives are a largely unaware of their significance and influence in other communities we like to imagine as being similar.

          These cultural distinctions between so-called “peer” communities are simply “never considered as formative, influencing elements” which underpin the formation, evolution and sustaining of the innovation clusters that often originate around “so called” university communities.

          In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  Maybe it’s just a matter of doing a better and more understanding job of educating?   I really do believe that is one of the keys to any successful community conversation.  But whom to best lead and how to facilitate and frame that conversation – those are the key questions that we never quite seem to address.   It’s almost like asking: “How do you introduce the influential issues, emotions and priorities of a demographic that doesn’t currently exist within the community?”

          Easy to conclude that the best approach is to simply ignore those non-existent voices.  The problem, however, of limiting the non-aligned perspectives, is the rule of unintended consequences – a phenomenon that we are only beginning to see play out in our ongoing policy and budget debates.

        6. Jeff M

          In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  Maybe it’s just a matter of doing a better and more understanding job of educating?

          That is reasonable advice.

          It would be good for those that don’t know what they know to seek this learning instead of trying to drive a bus they are not licensed to drive (metaphor).

          I run a non-profit corporation tasked with helping small business start, grow and hire.

          So I am probably a bit more aggressive against what I see as opposition to economic development than the average bear.  I also get a bit irritated because I see the missed opportunity to connect with a common goal of improving the human condition.  There is a tinge of irrational ideology… moralizing on symbols instead of taking a step back and adopting a pragmatic and factual view.  I really dislike that.

          For example, as a non-profit I still have to run a sustainable business.  I cannot lose money every year and stay in business.  And the same is true for any community-based enterprise.  The only other option is that it is injected to “free” operating funds to make up for the difference.

          But this community does not even have enough funds to pay its own bills.  So where is that “free” money going to come from?  Seems to me that we decided well-off government workers is a higher priority.

          If you have not noticed, this state and its local governments have made it YUGELY expensive to start and run any business.  Almost everything a person can do for a living requires licensing, certification and space and requires licensing and certification.  And fees, fees, fees.   You need to hire an army of other professionals to sign off on all those things that government requires you get signed off on before you can open your doors.

          Here is the problem I have.  Nancy is a local government-side expert.  I am a business side expert.  The way I see it Nancy’s side is responsible for endless additional difficulty and cost that prevents creative ideas like community-based business.  Her side votes for and opines for tax increases and new regulatory requirements on business.  Her comments indicate that she has a gap in understanding in how ANY business forms and starts.  She separates “businesses” and “startups” from “community-based organizations”.  Last I checked any organization will be required to form an entity and file tax returns (C-Corp, S-Corp, LLC, LLP or sole proprietor… those are pretty much the choices… and they are the choices for all).  They will still need a license to operate.  The facility where they do business (or what ever we call it) will be required to meet all the code and regulatory requirements.   They will have payroll and payroll taxes.  They will need business insurance because of all the attorneys eager to put them out of business for the remaining change in their account.

          All organizations take money to operate and all will be considered a business.  All business is a startup at some point.

          If Nancy or anyone else is really interested in a version of economic development that would appeal more to the liberal hippy view of the world, I could get behind it (because again, it is all about improving the human condition).

          Economic development is a thing because it has already been proven to improve the human condition.  Those much lauded Scandinavian countries are a good model to research.  They have big social nets that are funded by a strong private economy that makes starting and growing business easier. They honor and support free enterprise and recognize that there are trade-offs for over-taxing and over-regulating it.  Think Laffer Curve.

          Sorry, but you cannot just throw out ideas like this unless there is an existing model to make it so, or you have spent the time and effort to come to the table with a well-conceived plan.  The business of business is older than is the ideology of a no-growth Davis liberal.   You cannot just post flowery words on this topic and expect instant respect from people with real experience. However, I can get behind any tangible plan that makes sense.  That is why I asked for examples.  I am always eager to learn something new.

      2. Howard P

        Economic development, funding and support must be made available for entrepreneurship and business development at all scales and including a variety of  imaginative ideas and concepts that provide for all aspects of a community’s needs, including all aspects of the arts. [emphasis mine]

        Village Bakery to Target.  Tibet Nepal to DMG Mori.

        Her sentence following that quoted, I almost completely disagree with.

    2. Michael Bisch

      “Economic development does not just have to focus on companies and start-ups”

      Actually, it does. Companies and startups pretty much represent the entire universe of economic activity. There is nothing outside that universe*. If you are not already an existing company, you are a startup. Worker owned and worker managed are still companies…as are nonprofits, collectives, etc. Having worked now in both the for profit and nonprofit sectors, there seems to be a whole lot of confusion around this notion locally. Goods and services can be delivered via government, for profits, nonprofits or individuals, but at the end of the day, each have to secure the necessary resources to deliver said goods or services otherwise they fail. What I have experienced over and over again are barriers imposed preventing the acquisition of such resources.

      *The only entities outside this universe are governmental agencies.

        1. Don Shor

          Jeff:

          She suggested that economic development does not need to focus on startups or companies.

          She said:

          Economic development does not just have to focus on companies and start-ups….whatever that means to David and others. David may be right to suggest separate the economic development from land use. But, imo, we also need to get beyond just thinking of innovation/business parks, monetizing R and D from the university, and attracting large corporate business from outside the area, etc.

          Note ‘just’ and ‘also’. I didn’t read this as saying anything other than to also consider community-based organizations that might be encouraged to start businesses — profit or non-profit — as well as the more traditional concept of economic development.

  2. Ron

    From article:  “A second big piece of news is the more or less formal confirmation that long-time City Attorney Harriet Steiner is retiring.”

    Wondering how this might impact the mediation effort (and possible litigation) between the city and UCD. Which (depending upon the outcome) can ultimately impact city finances, as well.

  3. Matt Williams

    A piece of the puzzle that is missing from David’s article is the impact of having a Chief Financial Officer on board.

    When Mike Webb made his presentation to the Finance and Budget Commission in April, one of the stronly stated pieces of advice the FBC gave to Mike was to hire a financial “visionary.”  In explaining that advice several FBC members noted that the current Finance Department staff is strong on the accounting aspects of Finance, but that accounting is fundamentally backward-looking … reporting what has actually happened (or will happen in the very near future) … and what our City government needs is forward-looking fiscal leadership.  That forward-looking fiscal leadership needs to be part of the City Planning leadership team.

  4. Tia Will

     Because if they don’t exist, then the ideas are not feasible.”

    Wow. That is some seriously limited thinking you are engaging in. Before there were antibiotics, people almost universally died of serious infections. Before there was transfusions, people frequently died of anemia. I am sure glad there were those who did not believe “if they don’t exist, then the idea is not feasible.” How about at least considering the possibility of some serious “innovation” in the business realm?

     

     

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