Mario Giuliani works in a world of master plans, action items and programs identified primarily by their initials. But Benicia’s economic development manager focuses on what his job is really about: Establishing connections with people on an individual level.
“It’s all about personal relations. My job is to interact with business owners and community members to facilitate a desired outcome,” he says.
The specific outcome varies depending on the circumstances, but his overall goal is to help businesses thrive in our community.
When he sat down with Benicia Magazine in early October, Mario was spending most of his time on four projects:
- Downtown: Providing support for downtown businesses.
- Electronic billboards: Working on leases for three electronic billboards on Interstate 680 that will begin operation next year.
- Broadband for Benicia Industrial Park: Preparing to review proposals that are due Nov. 14. The City Council has committed $750,000 to improve network capability in the Industrial Park.
- Program to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gases for Industrial Park firms: Implementing a city program that provides grants and loans to help companies make energy-saving changes.
In addition, he helps businesses navigate the permit process, meets with property owners to help fill vacancies throughout town, and finds funding for improvements to help businesses and the overall city. Also, the Office of Economic Development launched a new website on Oct. 1, beniciabusiness.com, that provides detailed information about Benicia for prospective and current businesses.
Mario, 35, started working for the city in 1994 as a lifeguard. He served on the school board from 2001-2005, while earning a law degree from UC Davis. He worked briefly for the Vacaville Police Department before joining Benicia’s Parks and Community Services Department in 2006. Mario began the transition to Economic Development in late 2010 and became the economic development manager in 2012. He first moved to Benicia when his father, Otto Giuliani, became the city’s police chief. A newlywed, Mario and his wife live downtown.
How do personal relations help you do this job? Early on, I was able to do my job because I knew people in the community. I had a breadth of experience in Benicia, and I was able to engage in conversations because of that.
The law degree helped—it added a level of credibility when people would say, “Hey, don’t you work in the Parks Department?” I would explain that I also have a law degree and other experience.
I have the ability to listen to people and say, “What’s the issue with the permit?” You know, people don’t come to City Hall to get a permit. They come to open a business in a fast and effective way. I help them with that. I believe in saying, “Yes, if…” instead of “No, because…” That helps you get where you want to be.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you? Not really. I’m spending a lot of time now on the Business Resource Incentive Program. The city is providing grants and loans, using Good Neighbor money, to help businesses cut their energy costs and greenhouse gases. It’s a model program, and it’s won awards from the state and the International Economic Development Council.
I don’t work alone on this. Alex, who’s on the sustainability staff at City Hall, and Karen Majors, a contract staff member for the program, also work on it. It’s a marriage of economic development and sustainability.
What progress has that program made in cutting greenhouse gases and energy costs? It’s saved one manufacturing business about $25,000 a year in energy costs and reduced its greenhouse gases by 359 tons. Another company will reduce greenhouse gases by 117 tons over 25 years.
So far, 10 businesses are completed or nearly done. The program started in November 2012, and the first businesses came on board in January 2013. We’re working with high sales-tax businesses and those with high energy use in the Industrial Park.
We’ll reach a point at the end of this year when we’ll have data so we can let people know this is how local government is helping local businesses.
Your office also helped get the tree lights installed on First Street. How did that come about? When we were working with downtown businesses to develop improvements and benefits for which a Business Improvement District could pay, we wanted a dramatic goal, and one that would be financially viable for downtown businesses. I certainly encouraged and prodded the steering committee to consider the lights, but the credit and applause go entirely to the First Street business owners. I’m so proud of the merchants on First Street. In the middle of a recession, these business owners had the vision to assess themselves to create this.
What is a Business Improvement District and how does our downtown district work? A Business Improvement District is an assessment district designed to create a benefit or improvement. In Benicia's case, the benefit or improvement was the installation and maintenance of the decorative lights on First Street.
Benicia’s Business Improvement District is made up of all businesses that front First Street. The funds are administered by the Downtown Business Alliance. The business district was created in November 2012 and the Downtown Business Alliance began meeting at the beginning of 2013.
What role does tourism play for Benicia and its businesses? From a pure return on investment standpoint, the increase in sales tax revenues doesn’t justify the money spent on tourism.
But we had less than 2 percent growth in population in the last census, and we’re projected to have less than 2 percent growth in the next 10 years. If we don’t promote our downtown to outside communities, we won’t have a vibrant downtown.
That’s our front porch. What’s the return on investment if it decays? How will that affect property values?
What are your biggest challenges at this point? Probably trying to identify the resources needed for investment in the industrial park. We do have a gem in our industrial park—it’s the largest in Solano County, and there are a lot of businesses there that use the port. The Industrial Park averages $1 million in sales tax every quarter. In comparison, the First Street/downtown district, which includes Solano Square, averages $40,000 to $50,000 a quarter.
But we’re losing businesses to newer industrial parks. We are aware that we are where the Concords and Brentwoods were in the 1990s. Then, Benicia had the new buildings and everyone came here. Fairfield now has the new buildings. We have to be competitive, and we need money for roads.
That’s where things like the electronic billboards come in. That will bring in $750,000 a year. My job is to leverage the assets. We’ve increased city revenue over 50 percent from telecommunications towers, and we leveraged those dollars to set up the downtown Business Improvement District.
We’re working with Public Works on the roads needed in the Industrial Park. The challenge is city-wide. Gas tax revenues are going down and that’s a major source of road money.