Benicia’s guide for the future is its history. Benicia was the home of the first industrial facility in California in 1847 – the Pacific Steamship Company located at the Yuba site at the foot of the historic Lower Arsenal. With the Army encamped at the Arsenal providing protection, the Pacific Steamship Company yard flourished with offices and foundries. Benicia workers replenished linens and china, manufactured and replaced worn ship parts, and loaded coal from the barges moored nearby. Benicia industrial activity is160 years old and going strong.
When the Army shut down the historic Arsenal in 1964, the over 3,000 acres of the former military site were developed primarily for industrial use. Industrial activity continues to evolve and this evolution is key to Benicia’s future.
For instance, the Yuba manufacturing area and adjacent Lower Arsenal area economic activities range from glassblowing, auto repair and bodyworks to commercial retail, including weddings, educational classes, and of course the auto transport business at the port. The City Council is investing in planning the Lower Arsenal for economic “in-fill” opportunity, including transitional enterprises for incubator businesses that connect us to new technologies for power and energy such as bio fuels. Any future residential use, such as the artists’ work-live arrangements on Tyler Street, must fit in this mix of commercial and port activity. Other ideas include raised solar panels constructed on the parking area that could also protect the new cars off-loaded at the Port from sun and rain. Such a project would match the most ambitious solar projects in Florida and California. The City has entered into the California First program that is a financing vehicle for both residential and commercial participation in energy conservation.
Manufacturing the products for these incubator ideas could be in Benicia. Investing now is necessary. Such investment means ensuring the federal government cleans up the pollution left after nearly 120 years of Army use. Broadband service and fixing the roads, water and sewer lines, and storm drainage to prevent pollution are essential. Future circulation improvements for moving goods, services and people by transit, rail, ships, bicycles, trucks and cars are necessary. We need an investment plan with partners to implement it. Meanwhile most of our attention is on the slow economic recovery of our country, state and county. In Benicia we are focused on weathering the revenue shortfall — estimated this year to be about $500,000 and for the next two years about $900,000 — without strangling our economic development or cutting city services.
Recognizing the foundational value of education, the City Council is in the final stages of amending the Good Neighbor Steering Committee/Valero and City of Benicia VIP agreement providing funds to BUSD for the Green Academy and energy and water savings. This represents a one-time investment of over $400,000 for an annual savings for BUSD (and the city because we maintain the athletic fields) of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last year, the City Council provided $40,000 to the Benicia Unified School District to support the SAGE program at the high school. This program is a key part to the city’s Climate Action Plan for energy and water surveys (voluntary audits) and the first step in the Green Academy program.
Keeping education strong and healthy in Benicia means that we will be the crucible for smart, educated, trained entrepreneurs for tomorrow. It is the educational level of our households that is one of the compelling economic drivers for more jobs. (A University of California program is modeling what and where we should invest in California, and it is the availability of educated workers that matters more than four-lane highways!) The quality of our schools is also directly related to our property values. Benicia has the best housing value for a high quality of life and schools in the Bay Area.
Other investments include public safety infrastructure improvements: a new Lemos Pool roof; the bike and pedestrian path at Rose Drive over I-780; the high school signal and traffic safety measures to slow traffic; road slurries and repairs for East 2nd — thanks to the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Recognizing that the city’s budget is straining with the decline in revenue from property tax (lower assessments) and sales tax, we are examining where we can save operational money (salaries are the biggest bite). By strategically not filling certain city jobs, we can save money; but this could mean lost opportunities or effects on service.
Other areas to save city revenues have been implemented. We have been able to leverage federal, state and regional funds. Examples are the savings on the above-mentioned Rose Drive path across I-780 and the slurry seal on East 2nd. Bids came in under budget and we saved over $300,000. We will be able to redirect these savings for roadwork and other deferred programs.
In short, we are facing budget gaps because of declining revenues; and that means we have to be strategic where we cut programs and projects and where we continue to invest to support economic development that will bring more revenue. We need to do this for the future and not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.