Convinced that accurate data and analytics are needed to effectively promote local development, the new head of Solano Economic Development Corporation plans to establish an Economic Research Institute within the EDC during the next three months.
“I’m a numbers guy. I only speak two languages — English and Excel,” said Robert Burris, president and CEO. “After only 23 days on the job, my task is to study where Solano is today, where we’re heading as a organization and then develop a strategy for Moving Solano Forward starting in the fall, along with related principles, guidelines and tools to help get us there.”
He said this involves taking inventory of public resources, assessing private support and defining which companies to target as candidates to come to Solano so the county can be more competitive. It also involves finding ways to retain businesses already here as the county grows.
“We want to know what works, and what doesn’t,” said Burris whose remarks came at the Jan. 31 meeting of the EDC in Fairfield.
Before joining the EDC, Burris was executive vice president and interim CEO of the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organizations (previously known at the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council) for more than 14 years. He is a trained urban economist with experience in applied economics, economic development and real estate market analysis. Twenty-three years of his consulting career were devoted to economic development.
Data gleaned from the commercial world, economists in the private sector and those affiliated with local universities is needed. Once collected, he said it can be used to create compelling proposals in response to requests for proposals (RFPs). That will help the EDC convince investors and business owners of not only the benefits, but the return on investment (ROI), of relocating to Solano and remaining here.
The center he is proposing, he said, would be a go-to center for economic education and a source of up-to-date information on Solano County.
“Having command of the numbers and displaying things in analytical terms is important to get a prospect’s attention,” Burris said. “Reliable data is required to back up a development plan that can create thousands of jobs in our region.”
Another priority includes goal-setting, creating metrics and having a reporting system.
“County residents needs to know what we are doing, the companies we meet with to help them make informed decisions, and the results achieved,” Burris said. “This involves publishing a formal report. We also need to establish a tracking system to record where we are going, the jobs created, companies contacted, etc.”
His third goal is engagement.
“Solano is an incredible, unique and passionate region,” he said. “All of us need to become active and engaged ambassadors. It also means we have to be connected outside of our county if we are to showcase Solano to the world. This involves examining existing practices and conducting peer reviews. The data I’ve been talking about gives us a platform to market Solano and make us visible as we go on the road to participate in industry events.”
Burris said PG&E has “stepped up in a big way by offering to partner with the EDC to attract businesses, target those we need to contact and to also help to finance this vital economic outreach effort.”
“At home we have a ‘swear jar,’ where family members put in a dollar every time they say a bad word,” Burris said. “I’d like to introduce this concept when it comes to the use of the word ‘corridor’ in reference to Solano County. For some, our county is just as a place you pass through when going somewhere else. My mission is to make it a destination. We have everything that is desirable — adequate space, affordable housing, a workforce, jobs and many natural and scenic attractions. Solano is not a corridor — it’s where everything comes together.”
One way to engage a key source of academic support for Burris’ vision is by forming closer ties with nearby neighbor University of California, Davis.
Gary S. May is the seventh chancellor of University of California Davis, and like Burris, arriving last August. He was the keynote speaker at the EDC’s annual meeting.
He sees the university’s future role as deepening its engagement with Sacramento, Davis and the surrounding region. He quipped about “UC Davis’ branch campus at UC Berkeley.”
May came to UC Davis from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where most recently he had been dean of the College of Engineering.
In 2015, President Obama honored May with the Presidential Award for Excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) mentoring. May has also won numerous research awards for his work in computer-aided manufacturing of integrated circuits and other devices. He has authored more than 200 technical publications contributed to more than 15 books and holds a patent in this topic. He earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering and computer science.
“When the EDC asked me to speak, I said, ‘What I should talk about?’ They said, ‘About 10 minutes!’”
UC Davis has been tied to the economic growth of Solano County since its inception and has produced $8 billion in economic value, provided 22,000 jobs and has been instrumental in creating 14 startup companies, while also being home to several vital research programs.
“As everyone knows, one of our key strengths is agriculture — including viticulture and agriculture economics. This is an area of concentration that has been recognized around the globe,” May said.
He said another strength is our economics department with specialized tracks focusing on economic development and growth, as well as business and managerial economics.
His believes UC Davis will be a major resource for Solano EDC and its new Economic Research Institute. Given the Northern California need for building expertise in the wake of recent fires in four counties, he mentioned that UC Davis also offers a course track in construction management.
May has been on a six-month tour of the region, getting to know the people, organizations and companies in each of the county’s diverse communities, cities and towns.
“What excites those I speak with the most is the opportunity to partner together, share information and collectively achieve our goals,” May said. “This spring I will submit a strategic plan for our university that will include things like what UC Davis should be 10 years from now. It will be finalized in July. It will refer to ways we can collaborate and work in concert with a wide range of interests and stakeholders who are helping to shape our region.”