A plan for the city’s future

Council members mum on chamber’s ambitious ’community vision’

Chico Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Katie Simmons may organize a town hall meeting to discuss the organization’s vision for improving the city.

Chico Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Katie Simmons may organize a town hall meeting to discuss the organization’s vision for improving the city.

Photo by Michelle Camy

When Katie Simmons stood before the Chico City Council at its Aug. 4 meeting, she hoped that what she had to tell council members would occasion some lively discussion. That didn’t happen.

Simmons is the president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, and she was there, along with Mark Francis, president of Golden Valley Bank and chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, to present an ambitious 10-year “community vision” plan designed “to lift Chico to its rightful station in comparison with other communities in the state.”

In putting together the vision plan, the chamber drew upon work previously done by its Legislative Action Committee, the Chico Young Professionals Organization, Chico Chamber Ambassadors, city of Chico officials and Team Chico.

Simmons said that the plan’s focus on larger “quality of life” issues reflects the chamber’s increasing desire “to make sure we not only remove real impediments to business … but [also] that we’re looking at our community from a high enough vantage point that we can participate in the design of our future,” she told the council.

As the plan states, the No. 1 reason major employers give when asked why they relocated their businesses to Chico is its “quality of life.”

Unfortunately, since the recession hit and city government faced painful reductions in revenues and cutbacks in staff, there’s been a pervasive sense that “the experience of living and doing business in Chico has changed,” and not for the better, Simmons said.

Francis told the council that the chamber board developed the vision plan over “a lot of meetings during which we tried to answer the question, ‘If you were king or queen of Chico, what would be the first thing you would do in this community to make it better?’”

Part of the problem, Simmons said, was that, while “we’re all galvanized around the concept of improvement, we haven’t yet articulated what ‘better’ actually means.”

To that end, the chamber directors came up with five broad goals, with highest priority going to creating a safe community. Using FBI data, they discovered that two-thirds of the cities in California were safer than Chico, which ranked 310th of 466 cities, behind Yuba City, Vacaville, Woodland and Paradise, among many others.

“It’s the No. 1 issue of our membership,” Francis told the council members, “and I think I can say that it’s the No. 1 issue of your constituents. And the fact is … it’s getting worse.”

The vision plan’s goal is to move Chico up into the top 25 percent for safety, which Francis said is achievable if the whole community, not just the police, becomes involved in the effort. We need not only community-oriented policing, as Police Chief Mike O’Brien has recently instituted, but also a policing-oriented community, he said. He cited the recent steps taken along the Nord Avenue corridor, where business owners, many of whom didn’t know each other previously, formed a group and joined with the police and city officials to fight crime.

The plan’s second priority is creation of a healthy city government. It lists six “metrics,” or measurable goals, “for a solvent, effective, efficient, responsive and transparent local government.”

The third priority is to retain, grow and attract thriving anchor businesses that supply good base-level jobs and community identity. The plan identifies five ways to go about that.

Fourth is maintaining “vibrant public spaces,” such as Bidwell Park and downtown, by restoring them to “beautiful, clean and safe” standards, with an emphasis on “community service and civic responsibility in business districts, public spaces and neighborhoods.”

Finally, the plan calls for creating premier facilities and community amenities by partnering to support, fund and develop high-quality educational and recreational facilities, including a community sports and aquatic center and public and gateway art projects.

Simmons said the chamber’s request of the council was “to adopt metrics that will allow for clear and measurable communications to citizens in Chico around our biggest concerns: 1) safety and 2) solvency within the city.

“Without metrics,” she continued, “we are grappling with anecdotes, news stories and suggestions that things might be better or they might not.”

She said the chamber was committed to partnering with the city in all five prioritized areas to implement the vision plan over the coming decade. “It’s a big job. I’m ready for it,” she announced enthusiastically.

Mayor Mark Sorensen thanked Simmons for her presentation and then asked if any council members had questions for her. None did, and Sorensen quickly moved on to the next item.

Later, in a phone interview, Simmons said she was “kind of disappointed” that the council hadn’t responded to a report that was “full of weighty issues.” But the chamber board is determined to move forward, and she mentioned the possibility of holding a town hall meeting to discuss it.

“I’d love to see this community unite behind something like this,” she said.

Sorensen, asked in a phone interview about the council’s lack of response, noted that Simmons’ presentation was an unagendized “business spotlight” and that he didn’t encourage discussion because he’s trying to avoid allowing council meetings to go past 10 p.m.

Interestingly, there was similarly no discussion later in the meeting, when city staff presented the fourth annual report on the city’s general plan, a document rich in data about population growth, building trends and so forth.

Sorensen agreed that such reports, required by state law, tend to end up gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, but that doesn’t mean city officials aren’t moving forward.

In fact, work is being done that is right in line with the chamber’s vision plan, he said. He too noted the positive developments along Nord Avenue, and he said just this week he and other city leaders were meeting with Chico State administrators to develop a memorandum of understanding designed to foster collaboration between the Chico and university police departments.

And today (Thursday, Aug. 13) that group is headed to San Luis Obispo to see how that city handles the challenges presented by the presence of thousands of college students.

Simmons’ community vision, he said, “encapsulated a lot of issues that we are actively working on.”