Commentary: City of Davis Has a Chance to Go Bold Again on Economic Development

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – It was nearly a decade ago that the city of Davis made a bold move—they brought in a Chief Innovation Officer, Rob White, to head up a fledgling economic development effort.  Hot after the successes of Innovation Park Task Force and DSIDE along with the Studio 30 Report, the city came up with a bold plan of a city position, partly funded by the private sector and partly funded by the city.

That arrangement proved too controversial and the city eventually took on the full cost.  Under White’s leadership, the city launched a process to gain Innovation Park proposals—it produced three proposals, two of which moved forward and one has become the basis for the current DiSC project.

A few years later, White would leave, and the city would move away from the CIO position.  When the city hired Ashley Feeney, he was Community Development Director, Economic Development Director and, of course, Assistant City Manager.

It was announced earlier this month that Feeney would be leaving to become city manager at Citrus Heights.  Last week it was announced that City Manager Mike Webb had named the city’s principal planner, Sherri Metzker, as interim director of community development.

In a lot of ways, not a tremendous amount has changed in the last decade.  Nishi and its modest sized innovation center is off the table, University Research Park has capacity to expand, but the city is still in basic need of more shovel ready land for economic development.

UC Davis has moved its focus to Aggie Square, but there is still the need for research and development space near the main campus.

The voters will determine the ability of the city to expand its commercial space beyond what it has today.  DiSC is set to be voted on in June.  It was a close vote two years ago, but with a smaller project and a more certain future, it figures to have at least even odds to pass this time.

Economic development, however, is not like selling houses.  Generally, companies have a choice of locations to move to, and the city has the job of recruiting these companies to come here.

That’s a problem right now despite the allure of Davis to a lot of companies.  Davis remains well situated to take advantage of the research and financial power of the university.

“I like to refer to Davis as the front door to the Silicon Valley for the region,” Barry Broome CEO of Greater Sacramento said a few years ago.  Davis, he explained, helps to pull other communities along in the minds of Silicon Valley investors.

Economic development, he explained, is “if you do it right, it’s a profitable proposition.”

Holding Davis back is largely a lack of space, said Danielle Casey, then of Greater Sacramento.

“When we work with firms that are looking at coming into the region, they’re looking at expanding, it has already been said in terms of certainty…  We have innovative companies that are looking at connecting with Greater Sacramento.  I’d say, for the most part, Davis isn’t even considered because they’re going to do a look at a requirement in terms of commercial space availability and they’re just not finding it,” she said.

“They don’t even see it all,” Danielle Casey said.  “So you’re not even getting a look to begin with.”

Michelle Willard, the Chief Public Affairs Officer for the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, told the Vanguard earlier this month that there is a huge potential for life sciences in the Sacramento Region and that is still centered around Davis and UC Davis.

She said that “our life science industry and biotech industries are just booming in Greater Sacramento.”

Unfortunately, the first step here is to have space to market to companies that want to move here.  At the same time, we need to be able to recruit them and find places to meet their needs.  And that requires not just an economic development plan but also an economic development director.

The Planning Department in Davis, led by the Community Development Director, has a full-time job—plus—of shepherding through all of the development proposals.  That’s going to be a tough enough task.  Right now it looks like, in addition to DiSC 2022, there could be another two to three Measure J projects on the ballot.  That’s to say nothing about the Downtown Plan and potential redevelopment and a General Plan Update.

The Economic Development Director should not be caught up in the land use debates.  Their job should be to network with and recruit companies that would be good fits for Davis.  If DiSC passes, that is going to be itself a full-time job.  If DiSC does not pass, the city is going to have to go back to square one and re-think its economic development plan and where it can bring in the type of high-tech, cutting-dge companies that want to utilize the skilled workforce of Davis.

The city should be plotting out its plan of attack right now to be able to take advantage of this moment.

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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30 Comments

  1. Alan Pryor

    The Economic Development Director should not be caught up in the land use debates.  Their job should be to network with and recruit companies that would be good fits for Davis.  If DiSC passes, that is going to be itself a full-time job.

    So now the City should be paying someone to market DiSC to companies for the developer too?  Don’t you think the developer should be paying those costs?

    And I certainly don’t recall that this line item expense by the City was ever considered in the thumb-on-the-scale net financial analysis of the project done by EPS.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Many (most?) cities have economic development staff that recruits and facilitates arrival of new businesses. Most often these city offices aren’t particularly discerning in which firms they recruit, but Davis can take on a more proactive role to pull in firms that we desire. Davis can take a leadership role in recruiting businesses that are developing sustainable products that leverage research at UCD. To take a laissez faire approach means that we are giving up control of our future (or dooming the economy of our city.)

        1. Richard_McCann

          “We” is a city that has been proud of its progressive environmental record and leadership on many issues across the state. “We” is a city that has been welcoming to a diversity of college students and young faculty on their way up the ladder of life. “We” is a city that has preserved a well interconnected community that supports an excellent education system and a range of non-profits that reach across the county. “We” is a city that maintains an enviable network of parks and bike trails that helps makes this the most livable community in the region.

        2. Richard_McCann

          Bill

          There’s no consensus because as Keith points out we really haven’t had conversation about what the future might look like and what we might do about it.

        3. Matt Williams

          Richard, that is a very solid start  Vision Statement for Davis. It needs an economic component and a linkage to UCD.  “We” is a municipal jurisdiction that pays all of its bills in a timely manner and proactively maintains its capital infrastructure. “We” is a community that proactively and collaboratively forges a win-win partnership with UC Davis to leverage the activities and intellectual capital creation that are the core competencies and lifeblood of the University.

        4. Alan Miller

          “We” is a City made famous by Rush Limbaugh as the “People’s Republic of Davis”.  “We” is a City of property owners who repeatedly vote for a tax measure that makes ownership expensive via limiting supply, thus making housing for both renters and prospective owners next to impossible except for the ownership elite that votes itself a property bonus.  “We” is City that dug a tunnel for frogs that goes from wetland to a parking lot that no frog would visit.  “We” is a City that has allowed “Toad Hollow” on the east end of the toad tunnel to decay and be vandalized into an embarrassing mess.  “We” is a City that put a Ghandi statue in a park amid protests from an offended few, with the inevitable outcome being the destruction of the statue happening as of course it would.  “We” is a City that is drinking well water again after spending millions to tap the low Sac River.  “We” is a City that is most famous on YouTube for an ugly uncivil fight between City Councilmembers.  “We” is a City that used to clean up its graffiti, and seems to instead has given up on fighting graffiti.  “We” is a City that up until 10 years ago was pretty free of litter, and has allowed meth addicts living outside (MALO) to pile up garbage and dump their litter wantonly.   “We” is a City that has local developers who prey upon its people and guidelines for development and pull in local investors with the same lack of shame.  “We” is a City that allows the view for train riders passing through the City to get the impression we are a City of MALO tents, graffiti and trash.  “We” are City that reduces public comment from three minutes to two minutes because the Council doesn’t want to stay later.  “We” are a City whose police chief who grew up here moved out of town because of the open enabling of anti-police sentiment.  “We” are City that doesn’t give enough space in many of its bike lanes to keep people from getting doored.  “We” is a City who’s outdoor downtown dining area is a dirty embarrassment (slightly better now, still not great) and who’s citizens drive 10 miles to Winters to enjoy their excellent, clean, attractive outdoor dining block.  “We” is a City that pours tons of concrete to create a mess few like and that will take most of a decade to unravel back into four lanes of road.  “We” is a City that encourages citizen participation in government, and then derides those who participate “too much” (i.e. a way to put down those who participate who “We” don’t agree with).  “We” is a City that hosted a tenant in our business park who for forty years claimed flying cars were ‘two years in the future’ and made the local TV news every two years to say that, until the headquarters was finally moved to Dixon to be nearer the owner’s almond butter facility, which, ironically did at least get off the ground as a product.

  2. Craig Ross

    There are a lot of good EDD candidates in the region if the city is willing to do a search.  Be interesting to see who applies if the city puts out an RFQ.  Really important to cut off an EDD from land use decisions, otherwise they get bogged down in the Davis minutiae.

  3. Keith Y Echols

    This article pretty much echo’s the comment I made on the article about Ashley Feeney leaving.  I wanted to discuss the roles of Economic and Community Development but apparently it was a sensitive subject that had something to do with bashing city staff?

    I will add on to the article that unfortunately “anti” everything sentiment that pervades much of Davis would view any attempts by the city to court and partner with perspective businesses that are thinking of moving to or expanding in Davis as influenced or compromised.

    So, I must once again emphasize how much the leaders of Davis must reach out to the unwashed voting masses and sell them on the benefits of economic growth.  Printed info in the pulp voters book isn’t gong to cut it; neither are flyers and cards in the mail by the developer.  Shouting matches and debates in council meetings only serve the noisiest and most active voters….but not the majority of voters who don’t pay much attention to these things until it’s time to vote.   Big concepts about jobs good for Davis or thinking the children and housing….just isn’t going to cut it.   Leaders that back economic growth need to show how revenue generated for the city will not only go towards the city’s financial deficit.  But how that revenue will address things that people care about in the city: fixing/upgrading roads, more recreation services (for example, there was a shortage of lifeguards/swim instructors for the city’s pools last summer), funding for specific community outreach, more police traffic regulation (last week there was another near accident between a bicyclist and a car in the drop off area of the school I’ve complained about in the past; over the past week the city has sent a cop out there to watch and manage the traffic)….bottom show the people how the investment in economic growth will help them and stop emphasizing vague concepts like job creation and housing for others…..that helps other people…but show how helping those people helps the current people in Davis.

        1. Ron Oertel

          How does maintaining the city’s footprint equate to a “ghost town”?

          Did you tell San Francisco about that?  Or, the vast majority of the rest of the Bay Area?

          Are you and others suggesting that the only way to survive is to continue sprawling outward? If so, we’ve got a much bigger problem.

          In any case, the evidence suggests otherwise.

        2. Keith Olson

          So your solution to the supposed traffic woes is to turn Davis into a ghost town?

          First off, “supposed traffic woes”?  Tell the people stuck in the Mace Mess that taking 20 minutes to navigate the Mace overpass is just a figment of their imagination.

          And secondly you are right, Davis will turn into a ghost town if its residents decide to vote against DISC because of the Mace Mess.  LOL
          https://www.visitmammoth.com/wp-content/uploads/bodie-ghost-town.jpg

      1. Alan Miller

        The average voter in Davis is unfortunately more concerned with traffic inconveniences than jobs and prosperity.

        What an offensively naive statement.  Those people stuck in traffic, over and over again, day after day (wherever that is) are having TIME taken away from them.  That’s lost productivity, that’s stress, that’s time stolen from relaxation.  Every one of those people could be doing something.  Traffic is a loss on society that is an unseen subsidy to those developers who don’t contribute enough to the infrastructure to make up for the profits they reap from poor planning on the part of government.  Not to mention the additional pollution of the air that comes from cars sitting in traffic.  These ‘acceptable consequences’ to growth are not benign and we should not brush them off.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Keith E

      I agree. I had a recent conversation that revealed that Davis is becoming a “no go” zone for Silicon Valley businesses that don’t want to fight land use battles before they can even discuss facility configuration with a developer. Aggie Square already has most of its spaces leased because they have a clear path forward. TechNIP can’t even find 40 acres in town to expand its facilities.

      I believe a solution down the middle is to have a vote on baseline conditions for residential and commercial developments and it a developer agrees to those, the project needs only a Council vote to proceed. If the developer wants to deviate, then the Measure J vote kicks in. That will give the developers the certainty that they need.

      1. Ron Oertel

         had a recent conversation that revealed that Davis is becoming a “no go” zone for Silicon Valley businesses that don’t want to fight land use battles before they can even discuss facility configuration with a developer.

        Cool.  When do you suppose the Vanguard and others will stop pushing for this, then?  At what point do these mofos just give up – rather than keep threatening to do so?

        Aggie Square already has most of its spaces leased because they have a clear path forward. 

        I assume you’re referring to the first 8-acre phase.  The rest of the development is pretty small, as well.

        Of course, it also helps that they’re massively-subsidized, and are adjacent to a medical center.

  4. Keith Y Echols

    Richard: I had a recent conversation that revealed that Davis is becoming a “no go” zone for Silicon Valley businesses that don’t want to fight land use battles before they can even discuss facility configuration with a developer.

    Oh, I can almost guarantee you that Davis is thought by many to be a “no-go” zone for development and economic growth.  Having to go through a Measure J vote is as I’ve said before; like selling vaporware or an idea on a napkin to someone (to prospective companies looking to move into the area and to developers wanting to develop).  Or put simply: Davis is not open for business.

    I believe a solution down the middle is to have a vote on baseline conditions for residential and commercial developments and it a developer agrees to those, the project needs only a Council vote to proceed. If the developer wants to deviate, then the Measure J vote kicks in. That will give the developers the certainty that they need.

    Yes, that’s kind of how the system is supposed to work with a city approved General Plan and sphere of influence.  The problem is that once you give power to the people, it’s usually hard to take some of it back.

    Alan: So now the City should be paying someone to market DiSC to companies for the developer too?  Don’t you think the developer should be paying those costs?

    The city should be promoting economic growth for the city.  That includes all of the business opportunities (and commercial spaces) in Davis.  It just so happens that DISC is the only significant business space that’s available….or even remotely possibly available.  The promotion of a city to prospective businesses is how economic development is done in most proactive “open for business” cities.  Yes, developers should probably pay a portion of the cost for this function.  Maybe a small increase to application/development fees will help pay for some of it….nothing prohibitive for a developer…and DISC alone probably can’t pay for the position.

    That’s the role of local government in economic development; to provide assurance/confidence that a businesses’ interests are represented by the local government and to the voters.  It’s fine line because local government primarily has to represent the voters.  Ultimately, economic growth and communicating/leading the voters is about people and gaining their confidence.  There’s some natural opposition between new companies wanting to move to an area, developers and voters.  It’s up to local government to get them to all relatively get along.  Not an easy task, that’s for sure.  But again, it’s a sales job…show each party the benefits of working together.

     

     

    1. Alan Miller

      Alan: So now the City should be paying someone to market DiSC to companies for the developer too?  Don’t you think the developer should be paying those costs?

      Who is this “Alan” of which you speak?

  5. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said … “A few years later, White would leave”

    That is not accurate David and you know it.  Your sentence should read “A few years later, White would be forced out by the entrenched power brokers”

    Since Rob White left, the function of Chief Innovation Officer has been a vacuum.  The City has no Economic Development Plan.  There is no economic leadership.  There is no Vision Statement for the City.  And UCD has damned the City’s innovation effort with faint praise, by saying that “UCD does not oppose the project.”

    1. Alan Miller

      “A few years later, White would leave”

      Why, whenever I read years later about this guy from our now ancient history, does the portrayal paint the image of some sort of Messiah figure?

      Since Rob White left, the function of Chief Innovation Officer has been a vacuum.

      Pretty similar to when he was here.

  6. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . “The Economic Development Director should not be caught up in the land use debates.  Their job should be to network with and recruit companies that would be good fits for Davis. “

    .
    Since the hiring of Rob White how many companies have been “networked with and recruited”? 

    You can count them on one hand and have fingers left over. The City has no Economic Development Plan.  There is no economic leadership.  There is no Vision Statement for the City.  And UCD has damned the City’s innovation effort with faint praise, by saying that “UCD does not oppose the project.”

  7. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . “The city should be plotting out its plan of attack right now to be able to take advantage of this moment.”

    .
    The City should have been doing that each and every year since Rob White was hired.  Instead, White was quickly forced out by the entrenched power brokers and nothing has been done.

    Davis fiddled while its local economy burned … and the annual Budget shortfall grew from zero dollars per year to $14 million per year (and it continues to climb thanks to decisions like the fire department ladder truck).

  8. Don Shor

    Hot after the successes of Innovation Park Task Force and DSIDE along with the Studio 30 Report, the city came up with a bold plan of a city position, partly funded by the private sector and partly funded by the city.

    And the voters scuttled them all, one by one.

    The city should be plotting out its plan of attack right now to be able to take advantage of this moment.

    “The city should”? The mayor? The city council? The city manager? Just out of curiosity, what did you have in mind? Start another Measure J/R/D vote? Convene another task force, start DSIDE again? Would you bother to participate in such an event?

    It’s a waste of time for city officials and residents to work on planning processes that get voted down.

    The residents of Davis seem satisfied with what they have now: a nice bedroom community with great schools and increasing property values. They are apparently willing to keep increasing their taxes to pay for amenities. They don’t share your concerns about the budget situation, despite having had the opportunity in a couple of past election cycles to vote for candidates who focused on those issues.

     

      1. Don Shor

        I believe is it’s not sustainable.

        Probably not, but we’ve had commissions, ad hoc committees, conferences, expert presentations, Requests for Proposals, city council members who pushed hard for projects, forceful mayors, persistent mayors, candidates who ran on fiscal platforms (and lost). Am I missing something? Some lack of public engagement in all of those processes? How much more can you do?

        The public has supported two housing projects and voted down the economic development projects.

        DISC might pass, but it’s been cut in half and the economic benefits are reduced by the large amount of housing. I really don’t see why local civic leaders would get out in front of something like this at this point.

        When the downtown plan gets finalized and the Anderson and Hibbert families come forward with whatever they wish to do with their properties, we can have a discussion about economic development. Until then, we’re spinning our wheels. The reputation of this city with respect to economic development is firmly established: in the minds of the voting taxpayers, and in the offices of developers in the region. And apparently in the office of the Chancellor as well.

        Unlike Vacaville, Davis can’t just say “hey, we’re open for business! C’mon over!” because the past behavior of the city’s voters tells the potential business owners and developers what they can see they’ll go through. They are certainly not going to waste time and money on something where they have to pay for an election and campaign with the odds clearly stacked against them.

        Do you have a new angle on this topic to explore? Because I think economic growth advocates lost this argument locally about 5 – 10 years ago.

         

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