Daily Republic article: Solano needs to ‘knit’ its economic future starting nowMarch 22 2023
Daily Republic By Todd R. Hansen
FAIRFIELD — Solano County has some work to do if it is going to take advantage of new economic opportunities.
But retention and expansion of existing business is equally as important.
Robert Hess, vice president of Global Strategy for Newmark and one of four speakers at Tuesday’s 40th annual EDC Breakfast Meeting, said Solano needs to have a common economic vision among the county and cities and a common workplan – all to be “knitted together” moving forward, and with some urgency.
He noted Mare Island is an asset ripe for redevelopment, but 10 years need to be sliced off the buildout timeline. He said the world is changing too fast and Solano County could miss out.
“This is an asset we can market globally,” Hess said.
Newmark was hired to develop what turned out to be the 444-page Solano EDC: Moving Solano Forward III report. It offers 69 recommendations and outlines the top five priorities:
• Develop a compelling presentation and business case for why companies should look at and choose to locate in Solano County.
• Improve outsiders’ perceptions of the quality of life in Solano County.
• Continue to develop a dedicated EDC staff for business assistance and grant writing.
• Deepen relationships with area universities, including Cal Maritime, Touro University California and UC Davis.
• Build cluster networks in target industries.
The good news – the nearly 300 business and government representatives who attended the event were told – is that Solano County has 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; is close to major markets; and is well positioned for redevelopment, notably Mare Island.
There were three other assets highlighted as well.
Travis Air Force Base is on that list, not only because those airmen transitioning out of the military typically have the higher skill levels needed for the workforce, but also has a center of innovation that could, and should, attract private partnerships.
Solano Community College is already feeding the biomanufacturing industry that is growing in the county, and Hess said community colleges in general are going to be a driving force into the future because of the roles they can play in shaping the workforce.
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 county populations in the state.
And the diversity can be found among the decision-makers and business community – evident at the EDC event.
“We have gone into communities and the data tell us one thing, and then we go into a restaurant and it’s all white (diners) – and that’s not a good thing,” Gabriel Dion, managing director of Global Strategy for Newmark, said in his part of the presentation.
Moreover, Solano is also diverse in its industry base, with manufacturing, health care and agriculture being among the bigger pieces. That means more types of businesses are looking at Solano.
To that end, the target industries that emerged from a yearlong 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.
But there are some gaps, too.
Chris Rico, the president and chief executive officer for the Solano Economic Development Corp., said that Upside Foods, the Berkeley-based technology company looking to grow sustainable cultured meat, took a peek at Solano recently but the county did not have the energy infrastructure in place to land the $400 million project.
Dion noted that while it is a good thing that Solano has protected its open lands, that decision leaves fewer areas for industrial development. So it is critical that those areas have the infrastructure in place and are shovel-ready for development when companies come in to look at what Solano has to offer.
Rico said there are federal dollars coming to help develop microgrids and other needs, and in time, he said, industrial parks will be developing their own energy.
Hess said energy has grown to the same level of labor on the priority lists of companies looking to relocate or expand.
Other challenges include cost of living relative to the rest of the country; lack of collaboration among cities; lack of clear, shared vision and goals; a “not in my backyard” attitude toward multifamily and other affordable housing options; high public sector turnover; natural disaster risks; red tape and regulatory issues; and rising crime and homelessness.
Economist Robert Eyler, president of Economic Forensics and Analytics Inc., opened the presentation with a breakdown of Solano’s economic building blocks before the pandemic and now emerging out of the pandemic.
He noted Solano was on a “slow walk up” from the Great Recession, when the shock of the pandemic hit.
The loss of businesses and workforce are primary concerns, as is the higher cost of housing – though the latter is likely to fade in the coming years.
Wages are rising as employers are in a more competitive environment to fill positions. In fact, the median wage level in Solano, for the first time, is higher than the state’s median, Eyler said.
“Inflation is going to continue to linger over the next couple of years,” said Eyler, who said that is the price of the government pouring money into the communities to offset the impacts of the pandemic.
However, Eyler said, the economy would look much worse if the government spending did not happen.