Community, business leaders share updates at breakfast summit

February 27 2020

The Reporter By NICK SESTANOVICH | |

PUBLISHED: February 26, 2020 at 3:29 p.m. | UPDATED: February 26, 2020 at 6:02 p.m.

Vacaville’s business and community leaders got to mingle and learn about the city’s recent highlights Wednesday while enjoying a meal provided by Erica Marie’s Catering at the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce’s annual Movers & Shakers Breakfast Summit.

The Vacaville Opera House was filled with elected officials, chamber members, teachers and others who make Vacaville what it is. It also served as a way for members of different professions to get to know each other.

“This event affords our local business community a direct connection with elected officials, public policy affecting our businesses and community,” Diane Barney, chair of the chamber’s Board of Directors, said in her opening remarks. “Developing relationships with constituents provides opportunities to collaborate when needed.”

Barney highlighted the several elected officials — i.e., “movers” — in attendance that morning. Such figures included Sen. Bill Dodd, representatives for Assemblyman Jim Frazier and Rep. John Garamendi — Mayor Ron Rowlett, Vacaville’s city council members, school board trustees, County Supervisors Erin Hannigan and John Vasquez, and Solano Schools Superintendent Lisette Estrella-Henderson.

“I believe we have a quorum,” Barney joked.

Daryl Halls, the executive director of Solano Transportation Authority, delivered a brief update on the Interstate 80 widening project. The agency seeks to ease congestion along I-80 through a multi-phase project, with the first phase consisting of constructing 10 miles of new managed lanes between Air Base Parkway and just east of I-505 as well as converting 8 miles of existing HOV lanes between Red Top Road and Air Base Parkway in Fairfield to managed lanes.

STA is requesting $122 million from the state to help fund the project, and the agency is seeking help from the community to help reach that funding with Rowlett and Fairfield Mayor Harry Price leading the charge.

“We need your support on this project,” Halls said. “Don’t take it for granted. Don’t assume we’re gonna get it…There’s a lot of competitive projects throughout California, so we need the business community, the local community, people that use this corridor to speak up.”

Halls encouraged people to write and call local state representatives like Dodd, Frazier and Garamendi to urge their support on the project.

After a promotional video highlighting the accomplishments in the city and Vacaville Unified School District last year, chamber President and CEO Becky Craig encouraged attendees to get on their phones, log on to a site called and fill out a survey on the issues they cared most about in the city, VUSD and at the state level. As attendees voted, their results were projected onto a big screen.

The three Vacaville issues that attendees evidently wanted to see addressed were improving public roads, parks and buildings; providing comprehensive homeless services, and attracting and retaining employers.

The top three VUSD issues were expanding CTE and workforce skills offerings, providing healthy school environments with behavioral and mental health supports, and improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

The top three state issues were investing in affordable housing, expanding mental health services and investing in water retention solutions.

After the interactive poll, a leaders’ panel was formed for members of the audience to ask questions of. The panel consisted of City Manager Jeremy Craig, VUSD Superintendent Jane Shamieh and Bob Burris, president and CEO of Solano Economic Development Corporation.

Craig was asked about the status of developing the East Main District project, a proposed 83-unit in-fill, mixed-use residential and commercial retail development at the corner of Bush, Depot and McClellan streets. Construction was slated to begin in 2019, but Craig said the housing developer pulled out. However, he said the project was approved by the City Council and a lot of documents are already in place. At this point, he said, it’s all a matter of marketing.

“That site is ready to roll,” he said. “We’re partnering with some brokerage communities to get the word out to try to accelerate that project. It is a priority.”

Becky Craig asked Burris to tell the audience about “the next major player coming to Vacaville”: a healthy meal kit manufacturing company called Thistle, which will be opening a center on Eubanks Drive. Burris said the company’s CEOs — husband and wife Ashwin Cheriyan and Shiri Avnery — spoke at last week’s Solano EDC luncheon and shared their story.

“They started a business in San Francisco basically selling fresh-pressed juice on the street,” he said. “Over the past six or seven years, they’ve turned that into a very large private company based in San Francisco making plant-based meal kits for delivery.”

Burris said Thistle would bring 250 jobs to Vacaville in the short term, including scientists, nutritionists, people to create the meals and people to assemble the kits.

Burris said that one of the first things Cheriyan and Avery asked when they met with him was “How can we get involved in the community?”

“Those are the types of employers that we want in the city and the region,” he said.

One audience member said it was good that VUSD had high enrollment, but it has led to numerous schools being at or near capacity leading some students to not go to the school in their neighborhood. Shamieh said the school board was looking at options to mitigate the issue, including relocating preschool classes or adding portables to free up classrooms.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the money to build a school,” she said. “I wish we did. It costs probably $30 million at the very least to build an elementary school.”

Shamieh also said the growth is largely at the elementary level since the secondary schools are able to absorb the growth a bit better.

The panelists were asked what the city was doing to retain young families. Burris said it is important for those in this demographic to find jobs they could come back to, citing a plan to bring more biotechnology, life sciences, agriculture technology and biomanufacturing.

“Believe it or not, this area’s a national hub for biomanufacturing,” he said. “We’re continuing down paths that really give us where we have a competitive advantage, a great opportunity and the resources to do what we need to do.”