Main attraction

Developer targets workforce to buoy Chico’s economic development outlook

Dan Gonzales’ plans for Meriam Park include some pretty unique commercial spaces, including infrastructure for food processing businesses.

Dan Gonzales’ plans for Meriam Park include some pretty unique commercial spaces, including infrastructure for food processing businesses.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

About the development:
Learn more about Meriam Park at

Dan Gonzales can picture the Meriam Park of the near future. He sees the commercial buildings, where established companies operate and start-ups grow. He sees the refurbished century-old barn that serves as an events space. And he sees the apartments, town houses and homes inhabited by young professionals, families and seniors.

That’s just a tiny window into this massive project—one that requires looking beyond the flat and mostly vacant property just west of Bruce Road, bounded by East 20th Street to the south and Humboldt Road to the north.

During a recent visit to the nearly 300 acres upon which Meriam Park will be built in phases over the next seven to 10 years, Gonzales described his vision. The plan calls for a traditional neighborhood development, or TND in developer parlance—a project characterized by a mixture of work, living and social spaces capable of providing residents with just about everything they could desire. At completion, it will be home to about 1,300 dwelling units.

“You could conceivably not get into your car for four days—that’s the idea,” he said.

But more than that, it’s a project Gonzales believes will help solve one of the city’s biggest challenges when it comes to economic development: attracting and retaining a workforce. The demographic he’s primarily referring to is the millennial generation, and those that will follow.

To illustrate his point, he poses a question: “If a company comes here to Chico, and says, ‘We’re going to bring 200 employees,’ where are these 200 millennial employees going to live here in Chico? It’s going to be tough.”

Gonzales has built commercial and residential properties in the past, including a 40-unit apartment complex, but nothing on this scale. Undaunted, he points to his background as a civil engineer and his work as founder and president of Fifth Sun Apparel—the “Fifth Sun community,” as he put it—a Chico-based T-shirt manufacturer he started in 1994 that today is a major employer.

“I have 220 employees, and I built the business from scratch. So I get the challenges of building a business,” he said.

It’s in that role that he created a thriving workforce that is motivated to stay with the company. That experience provides a foundation for Meriam Park, which was initially a planned new urbanist community that has taken a new direction under Gonzales. Further inspiration: his passion for architecture, food and community, each of which will translate into unique economic development infrastructure, including a large emphasis on spaces tailored to food-making industries.

“I want to build a place for companies. What do I know those companies need? They need a workforce. What does the workforce need? They need a place to live—certain types of appropriate housing.”

Gonzales noted that, in his upcoming first phase of constructing 114 units of apartments, none will have three bedrooms. That’s because the tenants he’s targeting would rather have a smaller, more affordable space. There will be similar options for single-family housing—say, 1,000 to 1,400 square feet with price tags under $300,000—rather than the unnecessarily large and expensive homes that are out of range for most of those folks.

Town houses are among the development’s estimated 1,300 dwelling units.

illustration courtesy of meriam park

He knows there’s a market for such housing. So why, for the most part, doesn’t it exist?

Gonzales is quick to point to the city’s development impact fees that are the same for a one-bedroom apartment as they are for a four-bedroom space. Ditto for houses—a cottage with a single bedroom costs the same as a McMansion.

It’s a disincentive, then, to build on more centrally located properties—the most expensive land.

“It’s not like a greedy developer problem that we have, it’s more a matter that there’s no incentive to build a smaller home,” he said. “You don’t make any money, because the impact fees are so high.”

The consequence, he said, is that Chico is going to lose its workforce to other locations. Part of the problem locally, he noted, is that wages haven’t kept pace with the rising costs of housing—both renting and purchasing—and those folks will seek out higher-paying jobs elsewhere, especially when they start thinking about starting a family. He pointed to plenty of cities out of state that are magnets for millennials—places like Boseman, Mont.; Boulder, Colo.; and Bend, Ore.

“The way I look at it, you’re not going to change the price of housing—housing is not going down,” he said. “So what can you change to make housing more affordable? Wages. … If we can build jobs and increase the economic base, then they’ll be able to afford the housing. That’s my whole premise.”

City Manager Mark Orme said there’s a lot of excitement around Meriam Park’s recent progress.

“Since the day I got here, there was this idea that it wasn’t going to happen,” he said, referring to the Great Recession, which halted the work of New Urban Builders, the firm that started the project.

Orme puts the project in the realm of what’s offered downtown, and said he’s looking forward Chico being home to another vibrant epicenter around which to live and work and socialize.

Gonzales has been working on the project for three years, crafting a master plan with Urban Design Associates out of Pittsburgh, Pa., an internationally known urban design firm. It’s starting to take shape in earnest with the impending completion of the Foundation, a two-story office building with multiple suites for lease, shared spaces and amenities such as bike racks and a place to shower.

Though Meriam Park is an expensive endeavor that requires risk-taking and a long-term mentality, Gonzales is confident he’ll find buy-in locally.

“I see everything here so clearly, and it just takes a long time to make that happen. But I believe in Chico.”