City begins brainstorming economic development implementation

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In its third review of an economic report, the Winters Planning Commission dissected the report’s findings and brainstormed implementation at their July 23 meeting.

The Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC) March 29 report, commissioned by the city, examines Winters’ economy with an eye for opportunities to attract businesses to town in accordance with the General Plan. The committee, established in 2018, featured members of the public, business representatives and property owners

It makes a number of suggestions, most importantly revisiting zoning ordinances to add more potential land uses in certain locations around town, like expanding light industrial uses to attract agricultural business firms and revisiting land use policy like prohibitive impact fees to promote development in the Flood Overlay Zone.

Because the report deals directly with controversial North Area Planning—the development of land in the north of town, where a proposal by property owner Bellvue North to create a specific plan for property it owns, includes the annexation of a portion of the property outside city limits—commissioners and city staff addressed concerns around the controversy, defending engagement with the developer and the city’s adherence to the General Plan.

City Manager John Donlevy led the discussion, as commissioners brainstormed strategies for advancing the report’s economic development goals and how to enact any new policy in accordance with the city’s values.

Eight years ago, a former economic advisory committee made a similar report, and Donlevy emphasized the continuing benefits its ideas provided the city.

“It produced many ideas that just proceeded and took root. At the root of everything has always been looking at the overall quality of the city and ways to strategically do that,” Donlevy said.

Some of the results of that committee’s efforts included the city’s purchase of land to build the Winters Healthcare and Credit Union facilities, as well as changing an area zoned for agriculture to light industrial to allow for the PG&E building.

Commissioners were asked to think about what the committee missed, what the next steps are, potential opportunities and what should not be included in advancement of the plan as they heard the report’s ideas.

Central to the report is the idea of building local partnerships. Donlevy said the director of the Solano Economic Development Corporation—a group that’s seen recent success increasing investment and job growth in the region—wants Winters to join his organization because of Winters’ interconnectedness with the region even though it’s not in Solano County. The Solano EDC inspired aspects of the Winters EDAC report and Donlevy reiterated the idea that Winters should look to Solano, not the Sacramento Valley, for partnerships.

“What do we know about Winters? We’re actually more the East Bay than the Sacramento Valley—we just are,” Donlevy said. Of Winters residents commuting, “Most of them get to 505 and make a right—they just do. Where are most people from who come to live in Winters? The East Bay area—they just are. So our ability to collaborate with regional partners will be important.”

The report also recommends expanding land uses in key areas of tone by revisiting zoning ordinances. Cities create land use policy per California state law to keep development in line with overarching goals laid out in General Plans. Zoning ordinances can be reformed through the planning process to accommodate changing interests over time, provided they don’t conflict with the General Plan or violate state or county law.

Downtown, which already allows for mixed use—business and residential—remains largely untouched by the report’s recommendations, however, it does recommend expanding the Downtown Master Plan to Russell Street and creating an agricultural business hub that would require a combination.

The city is recommended it dramatically reform land use policy in the Flood Overlay Zone. Currently, impact fees to mitigate the cost to the city for building in the flood zone—upwards of $80,000 per acre— make the land unusable. By working with property owners to develop a strategic plan for the area and reducing fees by as much as one half, industrial uses of the Flood Zone could bring business to an underutilized area.

Expansion of light industrial use—the most inclusive zoning category—could attract the agricultural business and technology sector, among others. This could create business districts in areas along Road 89 and I-505.

The report suggests ways to recruit businesses to Winters by developing business infrastructure, like a commercial corridor in the center of town.

In his presentation, Donlevy said that expansion of business would be a boon to Winters, for more reasons than one. He suggested Winters could cultivate an agricultural technological industry in the vein of what Silicon Valley did for tech.

Bringing businesses to town would also allow for Winters residents—especially younger generations—to work locally. Donlevy cited a recent job fair for the hotel held at City Hall, where he said 100 young Winters residents turned up looking to get a local job.

Donlevy said Winters could even attract tech companies. 

“We can make tech work—right here.” Donlevy said. “I can tell you from the prosperity in the community—Often times I think some of the criticism that’s come up is we just want to build a bunch of houses. That’s not what this report says. This report actually says a lot of things. The ability for prosperity means better city services and better quality of life.”

Active recruitment of businesses by the city would be facilitated with the assistance of a recommended Economic Development Coordinator and advisory board.

After Donlevy’s presentation, the conversation became more free-from as commissioners brainstormed ideas for implementation of economic development policy.

Commissioner Lisa Baker said the city could attract tech firms by providing needed infrastructure. She said the city would need to lay more high-density fiber optic cable to provide high-speed internet; she also suggested a communal office space where employees working remotely could go to use office space and services.

Housing concerns, especially during a time when new housing developments are met by public disdain, pose a barrier to economic development the city may be unable to control. Without adequate workforce housing, businesses would be less likely to relocate operations to the area out of concern for their employees.

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