Billionaires want to build a new city in Solano County. Here’s what we locals wantSeptember 08 2023
If Flannery Associates is truly interested in our community, it needs to invest not only in our land but also in our people.
Sep. 8, 2023
A rendering of a city in Solano County proposed by billionaire investors who are buying large plots of land in the area.
Provided by California Forever
There have been numerous reports about the big investors with big pockets who bought large amounts of Bay Area land in hopes of building a new city. But not much has been reported about the actual place this land sits in — Solano County.
Since the big investors in question, Flannery Associates, didn’t ask, allow me to tell you about Solano County — who we are, and why we need someone to invest in our community, not just our land.
Until news of a mysterious new billionaire city put us on people’s mental map, whenever I asked my friends from San Francisco if they knew where Solano County is, most of them responded, “East?”
I explained to each of them that, even if they didn’t know it, they had indeed traveled through Solano County before — on the way to Sacramento or the Sierra. Their knowledge of our fair county was drawn from the story Interstate 80 told them as they passed through our home — Six Flags, Budweiser, the Nut Tree, outlet malls, farmland and traffic.
Obviously, there’s more to Solano than that. Our county is an incredibly diverse place — geographically and demographically — with vineyards, farms, factories, ports and marinas, relatively affordable housing and one of the most significant military installations in the country — Travis Air Force base, a $2.4 billion driver of our regional economy. We are one of the most diverse counties in all of California, with three of the four most diverse cities in the state — Vallejo, Fairfield and Suisun City.
Vallejo, which is often known for its police scandals, high crime rates and bankruptcy, is a story of so many company towns across America. In 1996, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed and 15,000 people in Vallejo lost their jobs. The city never fully recovered.
Yet Vallejo, and Solano County in general, is being reborn as a refuge for BIPOC people who have been displaced from Oakland, San Francisco, Emeryville, Richmond and every other part of the Bay Area where planning decisions have been deployed with little forethought to the unintended consequences for the local population. As we have seen across the Bay Area for the past 25 years, when long-time residents can no longer afford to stay and enjoy the cleaner, safer, more prosperous version of what used to be their home, they are displaced.
Of the nine Bay Area counties, Solano has the greatest economic needs per capita, and yet according to a recent United Way Bay Area report, we receive the least amount of philanthropic funding at $168 per capita. The next closest is Napa County at $812 per capita, and at the top of the list is San Francisco County with $11,211 per capita.
If you drive around Solano County, as I imagine the Flannery investors did, you pass by our towns and see an incredible amount of open space. This is by design. We are not the sprawling Inland Empire of Southern California. Leaders here had the foresight to protect agricultural land and open space. Agricultural production is a significant contributor to the county’s economy, generating almost $1.3 billion each year. There is a finite amount of land available for industrial development, and we intend to develop it strategically so that many of the 140,000 residents who commute out of our county, in support of the corporations, economies and families in the other eight Bay Area counties, can eventually find work closer to home.
Given our fragile economic and social ecosystem, it’s easy to understand how our region might go on high alert when a secretive company like Flannery Associates starts buying up vast swaths of our open space, including property adjacent to Travis Air Force base.
As the leader of a regional economic development organization, I’m excited about the prospect of the right kinds of investment coming to our community. We need to bring more prosperity to all of our residents and businesses, and I welcome thoughtful investment that respects our values. My goal is for our region to be at the forefront of urban innovation, to get ahead of the gentrification and development that we know is coming to Solano County as increasingly wealthy individuals flee high prices in places like San Francisco to seek opportunities elsewhere.
We want to partner with corporate and institutional philanthropy to embark on a new kind of economic development, one that allows Solano County residents, many of whom have recently been displaced from other parts of the Bay Area, to participate in a healthier, vibrant and more prosperous economy. Several billion dollars of private investment is already slated for Mare Island and the county fairground property in the coming decades. These mixed-use projects will bolster jobs, housing and commercial opportunities, with the potential to bring green technology, workforce development and community investments to our county. In both cases, the developers seem thoughtful and committed to leveraging their capital to improve the quality of life for all Vallejoans.
If Flannery Associates is truly interested in investing in Solano County, I would invite the group to employ a similar approach. Invest not only in our land but also in our people. We can build a city that values open space, agriculture, affordability, nature, our unwavering support of Travis Air Force Base and prosperity for everyone who is already here. But we have to do it together.
Chris Rico is president and CEO of Solano County Economic Development Corp.