Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Will Benicia be ready if the next Google knocks?

By Tony Burchyns / Times-Herald
Posted: 06/15/2010 01:00:54 AM PDT

BENICIA -- If the next Google walked through the door, would it be approved to go into the Benicia Industrial Park? City officials hope so. And they're doing more than just crossing their fingers.

Last week, the Planning Commission advanced ideas for adding more high-tech, clean-energy and research and development uses in the city's industrial districts.
It's been a City Council goal since 2007.

"We started this discussion when I was chair of the Economic Development Board," said JB Davis, who still sits on the advisory panel. "It's time to stop screwing around and get it done, so we can be ready when the next Apple or Google (emerges)."
With most of Benicia's industrial area built out, another focus of the zoning changes is the 500-acre parcel that Discovery Builders has applied to develop on the north side. The project has been delayed more than a year for reasons Discovery Builders' president Albert Seeno III attributes to the struggling economy.

"I think the modernization of the zoning is to attract people to that 500 acres," Planning Commissioner Richard Bortolazzo said Monday. "I'm disappointed it hasn't gone forward."

At issue are outdated zoning laws, favoring traditional manufacturing, that could hurt the city's chances of capturing new revenues and jobs, city land-use and economic-development officials say.
That's why city officials are proposing a groundwork of zoning laws that will "put out the welcome mat" for emerging technology and business sectors, a city report released this month summarizes.
The existing zoning code was written before the emergence of such industries as bioscience, software design and "green" energy systems.
City officials say the proposed changes would clarify what kind of businesses are encouraged and where they can locate.

An example of this approach was taken by the city of Dixon, which recently defined and added "bioscience" to its zoning code. The result was a research and development campus with minimal entitlement time and costs to the developer.

A range of modern industries would be defined, from "biotechnology" (the use of living organisms for specific purposes) to "nanotechnology" (the fabrication of microscopic devices). Information technologies would be defined, from software development to website operation. Animal-testing facilities also would be defined under the umbrella of new terms.

"You got to do everything you can to prepare your community for the acceptance of technology-based industries," said Solano Economic Development Corp. president Mike Ammann. "And the rationale for that is they are higher-skill, higher-wage jobs."
The city is "strategically located," city officials say, between Sacramento and Silicon Valley. And the addition of a possible train station on the Capitol Corridor line that runs to Sacramento could usher in jobs and prosperity, officials say.
The city's effort includes seeking state funding for a rail station and the development of long-term infrastructure plan for the Seeno land.

The changes would affect roughly 1,200 acres between Suisun Bay and East 2nd Street, not including the Seeno parcel between East 2nd and Lake Herman Road, which would expand the city's largest employment area if developed.

"I don't think we can replace Silicon Valley," Ammann said. "But we have access to this mega region from the Bay to Sacramento and Reno ... and we are going to be strategically located (as the population grows). The idea of Benicia aligning itself to attract more start-ups makes sense."

Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at tburchyns@timesheraldonline.com or (707) 553-6831.