Leaders in the Sacramento area know that, if the region is to thrive, they must diversify the economy away from booms and busts of residential development. That is why, until recently, the business-led Next Economy effort looked so promising.
Yet with its recent actions, the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce appears ready to turn Next Economy into the Old Economy. The chamber leadership has thrown its support behind Cordova Hills, one reason the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved this 8,000-home suburban project last month, despite loud public opposition and strong arguments against it.
In a letter to Sacramento County supervisors four days before they approved Cordova Hills, chamber President and CEO Roger Niello urged them to support the project because it was "university-centric development" that would help advance Next Economy.
He says that because a portion of the 2,700-acre site near Rancho Cordova is set aside for a "world-class university," Cordova Hills aligns with at least three of Next Economy's five main goals. He expanded that argument in an op-ed piece in The Bee last Sunday: Another university would help create an academic-industry research center to foster a strong innovation environment, would boost the education and knowledge creation business cluster and would help grow a world-class talent base.
That view, however, hinges entirely on Cordova Hills actually having a university. It doesn't now, and it shouldn't have been approved until one had committed to the project.
Niello won't say whether Cordova Hills would still fit with Next Economy without a university, asserting that the county's approval is based on one. "It's a hypothetical question," he told The Bee's editorial board.
Niello has that all wrong. What is hypothetical is whether the Cordova Hills developers can land a university anytime in the near future, given the economics of higher education and the fact there are already several other approved sites for universities in the region. What is certain is that Cordova Hills isn't part of the region's transportation plan and conflicts with the "Blueprint," the decade-old regional growth guide that calls for conserving natural resources and for infill development.
The chamber led business support for the Blueprint under Niello's predecessor as CEO, Matt Mahood. It is discouraging that Niello, a former state legislator who became the chamber's leader at the start of 2012, appears to be taking it in a different direction.
It's ironic that at the very same meeting where supervisors signed off on Cordova Hills, Niello presented the Next Economy principles and supervisors unanimously approved a resolution of support.
The cornerstone of Next Economy is to diversify the region's job base away from housing and state government so that it can weather recessions much better than this last one. How does zoning for 8,000 new homes and a new regional shopping center help in that cause when Sacramento County has a glut of land entitled for housing and retail?
Other major partners in Next Economy stress that it's a collaborative effort where groups act independently. There is no governing board to decide whether a project or proposal gets the Next Economy "seal of approval." Valley Vision, the Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance and the Sacramento Area Commerce & Trade Organization say they don't take positions on specific projects, and say it's entirely up to those that do, like the Metro Chamber, to deem a project consistent with Next Economy.
Next Economy is gathering an impressive roster of support from elected boards, business groups and others leading up to the rollout of the final plan on March 19. But it should be concerning to all involved that one partner would attempt to exploit Next Economy for a project that is clearly in conflict with the vision that many of us have in the Sacramento region for a smarter, cleaner future.