Dixon’s big dreams have a history of falling short. Will anti-gay column hurt city’s future?

A look at the big dreams, spectacular fails of the city of Dixon

Dixon has always wanted something big. The small farming town in central California have tried for years to score a big economic deal but have fallen short a number of times.
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Dixon has always wanted something big. The small farming town in central California have tried for years to score a big economic deal but have fallen short a number of times.

Before Dixon Vice Mayor Ted Hickman set off an uproar last month with a homophobic column in the local newspaper, the biggest thing brewing in the Solano County farm town was the potential return of Dixie the Dinosaur.

Dixie, a 50-foot, 14,000-pound fiberglass Brachiosaurus, once graced the front of a gas station/mini-mart at the Dixon Avenue exit on Interstate 80. It has been gone for 20 years, removed by helicopter and ferried to Benicia, where she became known as Bennie until being dismembered and left in an open field.

But Dixon Mayor Thom Bogue got wind of an opportunity to return Dixie to the town, and on May 22 the City Council voted 3-2 to spend $25,000 to bring the sculpture back as a sort of tourist attraction.

“There are people lining up for Dixie …,” Dixon Chamber of Commerce chief administrator Carol Pruett told the council that night. “We need to get Dixie back, and I haven’t been this passionate about anything in a long, long time.”

Alas, as with so many of Dixon’s grand plans, Dixie’s return was dead on arrival. Within days, city officials discovered there was a dispute over who actually owned the dinosaur, and the plan died.

This has been the story for years in Dixon, a town of about 18,000 residents 25 miles west of Sacramento that serves local farmers, boasts an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest corn maze and offers homes for workers commuting to the Bay Area, Sacramento and Davis.

Despite repeated efforts at luring in a big economic fish, Dixon — which touts itself online as “ideally situated” and “poised for business” — has suffered from a number of missteps in recent years.

“There’s nothing positive,” said longtime resident and activist Ourania Riddle. “This town is going crazy.

“It was a nice little town when we moved there in ‘82. Somebody told me it must be something in the water.”

Dixon has been trying to outgrow its rural past for years, seeking a larger job base and development that will keep its residents at home rather than looking for work elsewhere.

There have been some success stories: A Walmart opened on the eastern outskirts of town that employs 300 (and that residents say inevitably hurt some local business), and children’s clothing giant Gymboree opened a distribution center with more than 400 employees.

But there also have been some significant setbacks.

After Dixie left town, city officials thought they had found a surefire economic engine: a $250 million thoroughbred racetrack, shopping and entertainment complex that Magna Entertainment Corp. sought to build on 260 acres south of I-80 near Pedrick Road.

Dixon Downs, unveiled in 2003, would have included a 240-room hotel, a multiscreen movie complex, restaurants and 1.25 million square feet of commercial space.

But Dixon residents weren’t buying it. Put off by the notion of such dramatic change to their way of life, voters resoundingly rejected the project in a 2007 vote.

City officials weren’t placing all their hopes on the racetrack deal. Around the same time, Dixon spent $1.3 million to build a train depot downtown that they hoped would encourage Amtrak and Capitol Corridor passenger trains to stop in their town. That still hasn’t happened, and the Chamber of Commerce ended up renting the building for $1 a month.

Then came Carissa Carpenter and her 2013 dream of constructing a $2.8 billion movie studio on 548 acres, one that would employ 1,000 people, lure Hollywood stars to town and pump $200 million a year into a “philanthropy fund” for area charities.

That venture collapsed when a Sacramento Bee investigation found Carpenter had a long history of unpaid bills, more than $1.5 million in unpaid court judgments and no property.

Carpenter was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2014, and on July 12 she pleaded guilty in federal court in Sacramento to two counts of mail fraud and one of lying to the FBI in what prosecutors say was an ongoing scheme that cost investors millions of dollars.

Now, Dixon faces its latest test, created when Hickman, the 74-year-old vice mayor, referred to gay men as “faries” (sic) in a June 28 column in the weekly Dixon Independent Voice.

Although Hickman’s sentiments were roundly denounced by many in the community, local leaders worry about the long-term effect of a controversy that has received national media attention.

Given the situation, some wonder why a motorist cruising down I-80 would choose to stop in Dixon instead of all the other communities offering gas, restaurants and restrooms.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Councilman Devon Minnema, 22, a lifelong resident of the community. “We never want any local business to suffer from the actions of one councilman, but unfortunately that’s the situation right now.

“A lot of people from out of town have said, ‘Well, I’m not stopping there because I’m not giving that town any tax funds while that councilman is there.’ ”

There has been talk of boycotting the Independent Voice’s advertisers unless the newspaper kills Hickman’s column.

“They have actively been contacting my advertisers, trying to threaten me,” IV Publisher Dave Scholl said, adding that his columnists are “free to write whatever they want except libel, obscenities and copyright infringement.”

“Even if I did drop Ted, at this point they would attack my advertisers. They’re trying to scare them.”

Others are suggesting more hardball tactics. On the city’s own Facebook page, one commenter said they had forwarded Hickman’s column to Gymboree headquarters in San Francisco, asking whether the company should “relocate the Gymboree distribution center in Dixon to a location where the values are more in line with corporate.”

Bogue, the 56-year-old mayor and owner of a local auto repair shop, says he is painfully aware of how the reaction to the Hickman column may affect the town’s existing and potential employers.

“We do still have some development in the stages, but under the circumstances I don’t feel totally at ease in discussing who and what they are,” Bogue said. “We’ve already had some people going after local businesses.”

There are some projects that are either planned or underway: A new tractor-trailer dealership and truck stop is expected soon that will employ about 40 people, Minnema said. Habitat for Humanity is building a six-bedroom home on South Jackson Street that will be used to provide living space to six homeless veterans.

Minnema, who is more than three decades younger than any other member of the council, said he sees the town beginning to step away from its age-old reliance on a network of what he calls “the good old boys of Dixon.”

The emotional turnout this month at a City Council meeting by citizens wanting to denounce Hickman is evidence of that, he said.

“A lot of people have woken up to the importance of local politics and the role a councilman can play,” Minnema said. “We’ve seen a huge spike in people asking to get involved.

“They’re not happy that that generation has a stranglehold on policy, when it’s our generation that is here and going to stay here for a long time.”

Minnema said he has been focusing on reducing permit costs for home-grown businesses in Dixon, and wants more affordable housing built to keep residents from leaving.

But he believes that Dixon needs to send a message that most people there are tolerant of others in order for businesses to come.

“No one wants to be saying they’re doing business in a town that’s defined by something as unfortunate as hate,” Minnema said.

Bogue said he wants people to know that Dixon is “a pretty friendly town, we’re accepting of everybody.”

He said he hopes the notoriety Dixon has received in recent weeks dies out, and that economic development is critical to the future of the town.

“Small towns don’t like to see growth, and I get that because it changes things,” the mayor said. “But at the same time if you’re not growing then you’re shrinking.

“Nobody wants to pay higher local taxes, so you’re left with development to pay that tax.”

The stigma of Hickman’s column may stick around, given that the closest the vice mayor has come to apologizing is saying that he regretted using his city title in his column.

Pruett, the chamber of commerce head, said she has gotten phone calls about the controversy from as far away as Toronto. She hopes the issue will fade and Dixon can move forward.

“We shouldn’t be known for that,” she said. “We’ve got our corn maze coming up again, the largest corn maze in the Guinness book, and the oldest fair and parade in the state of California.”

Dixon native Anthony St. Amat and other protesters arrive early to express opposition to a newspaper column by Dixon Vice Mayor Ted Hickman calling for a “Straight Pride American Month.”

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