In 2016, I had the pleasure of writing about the City of Vacaville, in California’s Solano County. Ideally situated between Sacramento and San Francisco, the city has found ways to take advantage of its location, benefit from a strong labor pool, and draw from the University of California at Davis and Berkeley.
What began as an agricultural base has blossomed into a growing biotechnology and life sciences cluster. We caught up with City of Vacaville Economic Development Manager Tim Padden and Visit Vacaville President and Chief Executive Officer Melyssa Laughlin.
Tourism has changed significantly over the last few years as much new tourism infrastructure has been added. The focus is on promoting how the city differs from other tourist destinations. One point of difference is what Vacaville is terming ‘agri-venture’ – a combination of outdoor activities and agricultural tourism.
Because Sacramento and San Francisco are so close there is a great opportunity for people to get out of the city into more rural areas and visit some local farms. They can pick fruits and vegetables, work with the farm owners to make lunch, and then go on a beautiful hike in the afternoon or a great bike ride as there is a host of hiking trails.
“Those two marry well, and it lends to the focus on the term agri-venture and growing the product. For years, we have been known as the city with premium outlets, and while that is still a large driver of visitation to our community, shopping and retail in general is changing significantly. It is no longer a unique aspect of our community in the same way that some of our farms and outdoor activities are,” says Melyssa.
An effort is underway to try and increase leisure tourism. Vacaville is already busy as a weekday destination, and Tim and his team have done a great job of bringing in so many different industries. Now the goal is to build up weekend visitation with more leisure activity. That aspect is growing significantly and is being aided by several new hotel projects on the horizon, as well as more infrastructure that will be heavily tourism focused.
The City of Vacaville has identified its economic vitality strategy. There are four key job sectors, the first of which is biotechnology, followed by advanced manufacturing, food processing, and logistics. Of those sectors, biotechnology is at the forefront in many ways.
“We have a handful of biotech companies led by Genentech. We also have much smaller biotech companies and are working on a biotech initiative as part of the implementation plan that is a part of our economic vitality strategy,” says Tim.
Yet another biotechnology entity that was recently attracted to Vacaville is RxD Nova Pharmaceuticals with over thirty employees.
A consultant working with Tim to draft a biotechnology initiative identified strategies to help attract such companies, particularly from the Bay area where many are being priced out of the real estate market.
More biotechnology companies are moving north and east of San Francisco, and Vacaville is in a unique position, with The University of California, Berkeley and The University of California, Davis, two of the top ten public universities, thirty-five to forty miles in either direction. The City of Vacaville has talked with both the universities on several ways to get companies into the city.
“This biotech initiative is at the forefront of our efforts to attract biotech companies to Vacaville,” says Tim.
Within that cluster, much interest has been developing from medical device companies. That seems to be the fastest-growing sector within biotechnology, life sciences, and medical device industry. Tim will be attending a biotechnology conference in June 2020 in San Diego. A conference was held earlier this year in Philadelphia to which he and some colleagues went.
“There was a lot of interest from medical device companies in Vacaville. We are trying to play that card as much as possible. We are attempting to attract not just medical supplies companies, but also other biotech organizations,” says Tim.
Vacaville has Solano Community College, now in its second year of offering a four-year biotechnology degree, and 2018 saw the first twenty-seven graduates. Of the twenty-seven, twenty-three had jobs awaiting them before graduation, indicating that the demand is certainly there. The Solano Community College program will be expanding in future years.
“Once you have the talent base, companies will follow. Having that talent base will drive companies to look at Vacaville as an existing talent pool, filling some of the skilled jobs in the tech industry. This will increase as more students become interested in the biotech program,” says Tim.
The Solano College is only one of two offering this four-year degree. Spearheading this for Vacaville is Jim DeKloe, who in Tim’s opinion has done a great job. He travels throughout the country to conferences about this industry.
Other businesses also recognize the value of coming to Vacaville. Food company Thistle makes and prepares healthy packaged meals. This plant-based food company has announced a move here, and this is a fortunate occurrence for the city.
“It goes within the food processing/innovation job sector that we are looking to attract. Another one talked about recently is Vite Kitchen, which a couple of UC Davis grads, brothers Tim and Tom Zheng founded. They are entrepreneurs along the food processing line providing Ramen-oriented meals. They have created quite the online retail purchasing option and are based here,” says Tim.
One of the reasons so many companies are setting up shop here is because of the availability of vacant land zoned for industrial uses. Barton Brierley, the city’s community development director, states that Vacaville has a great deal of developable lands, particularly in the northeast part of the city where the industrial zoned properties lie, and interest is being generated by industrial developers who are erecting speculative buildings now.
“We have a couple of developers. One recently built a 250,000-square-foot industrial building on spec. Larry Kelley is a developer out of Sacramento who performs a lot of industrial projects, and they are going to build a 650,000-square-foot industrial building, also on spec,” says Tim.
Immediate plans for the industrial property are to get as much development underway as possible. There are current industrial buildings that are mostly occupied and some vacancies should be available soon. Vacaville wants to see these industrial zone properties get developed, but the infrastructure must be in place to support them.
“We need to ensure that the water and sewer infrastructure is in place in our industrial parks to not only attract new businesses but continue to get the development on our vacant industrial properties,” says Tim.
The City of Vacaville recently paid for a new water line to ensure enough water capacity for future industrial uses. This was a wise investment, as the water line has facilitated the development of two industrial spec projects. The city is continuing to look for funds to assist with road improvements in and around its industrial parks.
It is Tim’s job to fill those buildings with tenants, and it is much easier to attract a tenant if the building is there. Ninety percent of the time, with the economic development strategies and proposals the city gets for businesses looking to expand, these companies want a building and do not want to build.
“The more buildings we have for tenant use, the better off we are. There is a lot of interest and we field calls with frequency from companies wanting to do things,” says Tim.
To the west, near the Bay area, housing is scarce and very expensive. More attainable housing in the city is vitally important to lure in those people to work in fields like biotechnology.
Vacaville, however, has a good housing supply, and over the last few years, has built an average of about 325 housing units per year, giving it a very good land supply of housing. In 2019, it will produce about 550.
A number of housing projects are approved, with no physical, legal, or infrastructure constraints to building housing here. “We are getting a good variety, with a lot of single-family homes, but we also have under construction 245 units of high-end apartment complexes. We [are also in the process of development review] for a 175-unit senior apartment complex right next to transit, businesses, and a grocery store. There is a good supply,” says Tim.
The average price of a new home in Vacaville is about $450,000. If you drive out of town either way it can get up to $800,000 to $900,000 quickly. This is an incentive for businesses to locate in Vacaville because employees can find nice housing in a family-friendly city with good services and many recreational opportunities. Businesses do not have to worry about attracting top employees but then losing them because they cannot find a place to live and are tired of driving two hours in traffic every day.
To complement that, the City of Vacaville is working on a downtown plan that includes a retail strategy. “We want to create a sense of vibrancy. Historically, there has been a lot of office usage in the downtown area. We desire a more robust, diversified downtown that is running for eighteen hours as opposed to eight,” says Tim.
The issue is not unique to Vacaville as many cities have downtowns that are busy for eight hours but then become ghost towns in the evening. The city would like to see people drinking coffee in the morning, having lunch downtown, but also being out after 5 p.m. Getting more housing, coffee shops, and recent interest from microbreweries to keep people in the city outside of business hours. More of these are needed in downtown Vacaville.
“We should get the plan adopted in 2020, and it will be continuous over the next ten years. For example, there is a great opportunity for the redevelopment of a former drug store site for a mixed-use residential and commercial development that we have had a lot of interest in,” says Tim.
The East Main District in the east end of downtown has already gone through land use approval to have another mixed-use project with retail on the ground floor and residential town homes and apartments above. This would be Vacaville’s first mixed-use project downtown with eighty-five residential units and five thousand square feet of retail.
The aim is to get more residents living downtown. To support those eighteen-hour retail businesses, there must be more people living as close to those businesses as possible. The project has final approval, and the city is now working on getting it started.
“We are, in general, in a really great situation overall, with lots of opportunities for businesses, housing, great recreational opportunities, and educational avenues within a strategic location,” says Tim.