General plan: round four

City officials hear public input about economic development

They came to talk about economic development, but financial pessimism hung in the air like a dark cloud.

The occasion was a joint meeting of the Chico City Council and Planning Commission Tuesday (Aug. 17) to discuss the general-plan update, their fourth this year. This time around they considered, in addition to economic development, the downtown and community design.

The items that emerged included improved downtown parking, mixing retail with residential use in downtown development, sources of future city revenue, and balancing it all with the notion of environmental sustainability.

The four-and-a-half hour meeting was well-attended, and there was no shortage of public input. But folks were clearly uneasy about the city’s financial prospects.

Cynics said the plan’s financial predictions were much too rosy, while optimists said they were confident the economy would recover. Realists said maybe the city should look to sources other than sales taxes for its future revenue.

Chico resident Alan Gair said early on that the plan fails to take into account chances that the economy is not going to turn around anytime soon. “I think that any plan that doesn’t allow for things not going well is not a plan at all; it’s just figment of your imaginations,” he said.

“Wordsmithing,” as some on the council and commission have called it, was once again in heavy use, as speakers weighed “shall” against “encourage” and “promote,” or pitted “protect” against “avoid.” In the latter case it was how best to word efforts to preserve the foothill viewshed from obtrusive housing developments.

Some citizens, including downtown business owner Yvonne Gailey, said they are opposed to allowing sprawling new retail space on the outskirts of town. Gailey said the downtown should be a regional shopping destination.

On the other hand, Chico State economics professor David Gallo suggested the plan relies too much on retail sales to generate future revenue.

“My point here is to look at retail growth in a way that is supported by demand [and] not to pursue huge increases in retail when in fact that’s going to degrade the existing marketing for retail that is already here,” Gallo told the panels.

Another professor, Mark Stemen, who teaches environmental studies at Chico State, said the plan does not put enough emphasis on sustainability.

“In my opinion it’s woefully absent when discussing economic development,” he said. “I believe the plan relies too much on the unsustainable practice of taking business and jobs from someplace else.”

Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas, echoing the ideas of others, including City Council candidate and farmer Mark Herrera, said the city should look to urban farming and other agricultural activities as a source of future income for the city’s budget.

“[We need to] maintain and enhance local agricultural production and the growing role of value-added food products as a base industry by preserving agricultural land, enhancing local food distribution systems and enhancing utilization of agricultural and food wastes,” Luvaas said.

Council candidate Bob Kromer said the citizens of Chico do not want to see mixed-use buildings—retail on the first floor, living space on the second—and constructing them would be financially foolhardy. Lending institutions, he said, are not much interested in financing such structures.

Developer Tom DiGiovani, who is building the Meriam Park project, which calls for a mixed use of business and residential in east Chico, said he agreed to a certain extent, at least when it comes to the plan’s use of the word “require” instead of “encourage.”

But he added that “It’s tough to finance anything right now.”

Local business consultant Mike Trolinder said the plan needs to “emphasize downtown retail health” and loosen the restrictions of the city’s downtown sign ordinance. “A store is a billboard,” he said.

Mayor Ann Schwab said the plan should encourage people to shop locally, regardless of whether the business is a chain or Chico-based. Vice Mayor Tom Nickell said the city should develop a performing arts center to draw visitors from other areas. And Councilman Larry Wahl said the plan should include ways to make existing businesses more profitable.

The council and commission will meet again Saturday morning (Aug. 21) to continue the plan’s update, this time looking at the future of the city’s parks, other public facilities and community services.