Daily Republic article: Solano County Business Journal: Building blocks for economic development: housing, water, power, workforce

May 07 2023


FAIRFIELD — Solano County has benefitted in countless ways from Lake Berryessa’s water bounty.

“It is certainly one of the most important things, but it can’t carry us alone,” Chris Rico, president and chief executive officer for the Solano Economic Development Corp., said in a recent interview.

However, there are other building blocks necessary for successful economic development with which Solano is not flush: housing – and particularly multi-family development – and power.

In fact, the county recently missed out on Upside Foods, the Berkeley-based technology company looking to grow sustainable cultured meat, but the county did not have the energy infrastructure in place to land the $400 million project.

Instead, another warehousing project is under construction at the site.

“Right now, supply can’t meet demand. So it’s fine to say everyone needs electric cars and a charger in their garage, but right now PG&E can’t supply the power,” Rico said.

Chris Rico is the president and CEO of the Solano Economic Development Corporation. (Matt Miller/Daily Republic file)

The answer to providing enough power may be home grown with firms such as Larsen & Toubro Limited Inc. in Fairfield, Rico said.

He pointed to work being done on improving the efficiency of power storage and distribution, and thinks improvements in those critical areas will be accelerated in the coming years.

Micro-grid development is going to be an economic mainstay.

“I think the future of energy will be developed and stored locally,” Rico said.

Additionally, there is a need to develop the “kind of workforce that will attract the right kind of businesses,” in the same vein as Solano Community College has created a bio-manufacturing training program, plus establishing a quality of life profile that will attract young professionals.

“And those are things we want, too,” said Rico, who recently purchased a home overlooking the Vallejo waterfront. He and his partner, Rafa, enjoy riding their bikes, exploring music, art and culture and take in the geography.

“It’s amazing,” Rico, in an interview last year, said of Solano County’s diversity, which includes its seven cities. “The geography is spectacular. There are so many interesting things here.”

So Solano County does have many of the assets necessary to attract companies.

It has a lower cost of living relative to the Bay Area as a whole; it is connected by highway, rail, port and air access; has high-quality health care; high-quality public schools and a strong university presence. It is close to major markets, and is well positioned for redevelopment, notably Mare Island.

Travis Air Force Base is also a huge asset, not only because those airmen transitioning out of the military typically have the higher skill levels needed for the workforce, but it also has a center of innovation that could, and should, attract private partnerships.

Companies looking to relocate or expand also are looking at workforce diversity as a critical piece, and Solano County has one of the most diverse populations in the state.

However, more than 140,000 of those residents are working outside the county. One of the keys moving forward is to find a way to keep that talent at home.

So the good news is that Solano County can build on what is has to improve its profile, but it is going to take investment in housing and power.

The target industries that emerged from a yearlong EDC economic study are fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing; support activities for crop production; pharmaceuticals and medicine manufacturing; beverage manufacturing; and architectural and structural metals manufacturing.

Rico added that is why it is critical that areas that are available for development must be made shovel-ready, with water, sewer, power and other infrastructure in place to land the businesses.

To that end, grant applications – $750,000 for priority production areas and $400,o00 for priority development areas – have been submitted and Rico is confident they will be awarded.

Additionally, Benicia has applied for a $750,000 grant to redevelop its waterfront. That offshore area also is viewed as a potential wind power location.

“And getting these grants will set us up for future money,” Rico said.

Perhaps part of the economic development outlook, Rico added, is also a refocused perspective, especially when it comes to judgements about multi-family development and apartment lifestyles.

Rico, 52, was raised by his mother in Manhattan Beach in Southern California, though he grew up in Ohio, and has spent time living in San Francisco as well as the Los Angeles area.

“We were those people who were in a rental townhome, side by side,” said Rico, emphasizing that good people come from all kinds of housing outlines.

He said he has heard a lot from Solano residents saying “they don’t want those kinds of people living next to them,” when discussing proposed multi-family development projects. He takes it personally.

“I just wish people would stop vilifying people who live in apartments,” Rico said.

Rico also hears from the business and industry speculators looking at the area, and by reputation they know “Solano County has not done a good job in building multi-family housing.”

Developments like those proposed for Lagoon Valley and Middle Green Valley are important because executive-level housing is also a must for companies that are looking to relocate or establish something new.

But that is only part of the picture, and when it comes to young professionals, well, they are not looking for their grandparents’ homestead. They have a different dream.

“Gen Z does not want to buy houses; they want to live in a cool apartment near cool downtowns with things to do,” Rico said.

He said Sacramento is doing a great job in meeting those needs and young adults – including droves from Solano County – are going there.

The snapshot is not unlike what Fairfield wants to create with its Heart of Fairfield plan, which has in its design more residential options and a downtown filled with restaurants, entertainment and niche shops. Vacaville shares a similar vision.

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