California Forum

Rural California towns are said to be dying. So why is little Gonzales doing so well?

A landmark water tower in the Salinas Valley community of Gonzales, which has grown its tax base by double digits and added some 1,200 new jobs.
A landmark water tower in the Salinas Valley community of Gonzales, which has grown its tax base by double digits and added some 1,200 new jobs. Associated Press

California’s small, rural towns are supposedly doomed, as state policy favors our coastal mega-regions.

So how do you explain Gonzales?

Despite its location in the high-poverty Salinas Valley, the city has a success story to share: relatively low crime, 95 percent high school graduation rates, new health facilities, sustainable infrastructure and a streak of economic development victories.

Most intriguingly, Gonzales has turned its small size into an advantage. Building on stable leadership – the city manager, Rene Mendez, is in his 13th year – Gonzales has kept city government streamlined so that it can move faster in planning and project approval, a distinguishing trait in slow, bureaucratic California. An example: A large vegetable processing plant for Taylor Farms was proposed in July 2013 – and completed in April 2014.

In the past three fiscal years, Gonzales’ tax base has grown by 17 percent, 19 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. Those gains represent more than 1,200 new jobs.

Speed works. In the past three fiscal years, Gonzales’s tax base has grown by 17 percent, 19 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. Those gains represent more than 1,200 new jobs. Gonzales companies are oriented toward technology, agriculture and the environment. Among them are HealthySoil, which manufactures products that improve crop production; and Ramsay Highlander, which designs and manufactures advanced harvesting equipment. Soon, Gonzales will be home to a 130,000-square foot Mann Packing facility.

Gonzales’s approach is unconventional among California small towns. The typical formula is to beautify the town center and develop a signature entertainment venue that attracts visitors, while chasing major retailers that produce high levels of sales tax for municipal coffers.

But Gonzales, somewhat isolated, was not a natural fit for tourism and malls. Instead of chasing big retailers, Mendez wanted the city to focus on its own strengths and residents. So the city has enhanced its industrial footprint and taken advantage of its proximity to agriculture. Gonzales has no Costco but produces the vegetable trays you buy there.

Mendez says that since his small city lacks bureaucracy, he and other officials must build relationships themselves with businesses and other stakeholders. In environment-obsessed Monterey County, Gonzales’ partners have pointed it toward sustainability investments. Gonzales built a wind turbine, its tallest structure and most distinguishing landmark, to accommodate Taylor Farms, which does extensive recycling of water and waste and relies on solar power.

Many of Gonzales’ partnerships, with missions ranging from college readiness to career skills, are designed to serve its youthful population: More than one-third of residents are 18 or younger. In 2013, the city and school district jointly created a Youth Council that tackles community improvement projects, and shapes policy, recently on marijuana and underage drinking. Two Youth Council members have non-voting seats on the city council.

But the best example of the Gonzales way involves health care.

Five years ago, the city had just one full-time doctor. So the city persuaded Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System to open a satellite facility. Taylor Farm gave $1 million to help build the clinic. But Gonzales didn’t stop there; the city also negotiated with non-profit Clinica de Salud to set up a second clinic. Gonzales now has six doctors and four dentists.

Gonzales’s record is less impressive on housing. The city is badly overcrowded, with 4.1 persons per household. Mendez says Gonzales hasn’t built a single-family home since 2005, though that’s not for lack of effort. The city is working on three new developments that could produce more than 6,000 housing units, as well as new schools and a library.

In California, small, freewheeling cities have been viewed with suspicion because of scandals like the one in Bell, where the city manager plundered $5.5 million via inflated salaries. But Mendez, whose $190,000 pay is about average for a city manager, says Gonzales shows that smaller cities can use their freedom for progress if they make smart partnerships.

“Our types of communities have to do a better job of working together to pursue jobs and advocate for each other,” he says.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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