By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The good news is that the city is not plunging into the deep deficits that were feared when the economy shut down a year ago. While that alleviates the immediate need for budget cuts, it does not get us off the hook, as we still have long-term sustainability problems and an ongoing structural deficit.
The city faces a roughly $10 million shortfall in what it has versus what it needs. A big problem is that the city still lacks a reliable sales tax base outside of its core services that are offered. That’s not going away and, with changes to how business is done post-pandemic, it may well become far worse.
At the same time that the city faces huge shortfalls in funding for critical infrastructure, the voters have not been inclined to help. A parcel tax in 2018 failed that would have provided $3 million a year for infrastructure, especially roads. And the Innovation Park proposal on the ballot last November was narrowly defeated.
A decade ago, the community and business leaders forged a plan — the Dispersed Innovation Strategy which came out of the Studio 30 report, DSIDE and the Innovation Park Task Force. That ultimately led to the hiring of a Chief Innovation Officer and the solicitation of several proposals for innovation centers, and finally the loss of Nishi in 2016 and DISC in 2020.
But with the loss of DISC and the rapid shift in the landscape it is time to revisit previous concepts and figure out perhaps a new way forward.
Here I lay out five suggestions for the city, in no particular order.
Create a New Economic Development Commission
The city disbanded their Business and Economic Development Commission (BEDC) about a decade ago. It also disbanded their Innovation Park Task Force, a more temporary group, when it appeared that they had completed their work.
It is time for the city to double-down on a commitment to push for economic development — and that means to get citizen input to help plan and recruit businesses to come to Davis.
New Economic Development Plan
Studio 30 arose out of the last session which created the dispersed innovation model. But two of the three planks have collapsed — Nishi with the 300,000 square feet of innovation space was defeated in 2016 and replaced with an all-housing model that passed. DISC failed in 2020. Replacing Nishi, perhaps, are ventures like Sierra Energy’s Area 52 and the University Research Park.
In the meantime, not only has Sacramento moved forward, but so too has Woodland and West Sacramento.
The city needs to partner with the University to create a viable plan with full support and buy-in from UC Davis.
New General Plan
Everything hinges on a new General Plan because the previous one is now two decades old. One area that I think we need to continue to look at is pre-approvals of land for projects. Contrary to the claims of some pushing back against this notion, this is not an end run around Measure J. It requires a vote in advance. It requires baseline features and an EIR.
One of the problems with DISC was that — unlike a housing project — an economic development project, until there are actually entitlements and infrastructure and tenants, is going to be vague and ill-defined. That didn’t work well for the public. A pre-approval process could allow for the flexibility needed to get a project like this approved.
And it can still lay down protections against things like density, number of housing units (or whether housing will be allowed) and the like.
A Dedicated Chief Innovation Officer/ Economic Development Director
The city had this in Rob White. Currently the city has Assistant City Manager and Community Development Director Ashley Feeney heading up both Community Development and Economic Development as well.
With all due respect to him, that’s not what the city needs right now. The city needs someone who can execute the plan and go and recruit companies — filling existing space and ultimately filling newly developed space. And they should focus on that without worrying about the land use issues and land use wars that go on in town.
Finally Replace the Innovation Park Task Force/DSIDE Process
One thing I noticed is that by the time DISC got on the ballot, all of the energy that was around from 2010 to 2014 was gone. There was no grassroots movement. You didn’t see a huge number of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and innovators on the front line.
The original process was not a developer-driven process. In fact, there were no developers involved until 2014. But all of the grassroots energy had subsided by the time DISC finally got around to getting a project to the voters six years later.
A lot of things went wrong. But most notably gone were things like DISDE, the Innovation Park Task Force, Jumpstart Davis, Davis Roots, and a whole host of other grassroots community involvement.
Can we recapture that energy and moment? That is hard to know.
The other problem, though, was something I observed when I started attending meetings in 2013 and 2014 on Innovation efforts — we only had a portion of the Davis community involved. It was very noticeable when you looked around the room at the people involved in the meetings that the environmental and slow growth communities were not involved in the planning, and therefore they were not there to provide the kind of vital feedback and pushback that would make the ultimate plan resilient.
Whether the city can ever recapture that kind of energy it once had is debatable. But creating a new citizen’s based task force and this time making sure that all parts of the Davis room are involved is vital to any effort going forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting