Eye on the Horizon

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg on economic development, wireless infrastructure and elevating the city’s culture

Back Q&A Aug 17, 2017 By Rich Ehisen

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has a decidedly unique perspective on the role of government borne of experience few can match: he is a former city councilman, California assemblymember and senate president who has come home to local government. We sat down with him to talk about his vision for the city.

You’ve talked of making Sacramento a more attractive destination to visitors. What are your priorities in this regard?

The people of Sacramento are hungry for this city to elevate. They know they already live in a great city, but we want it to be more. We want more art, we want more culture, we want more street activity, we want more of the positive urban experience and we want more music festivals. My view of Sacramento is that it is a city on fire, and my job is to help create the condition and the public capacity to be able to do more around art, innovation, technology, food and “Destination Sacramento” [a $22 million fund the City would use to pay for city improvement projects].

The old theory in this city has been that you do one big thing at a time and hope that generates enough revenue so five years later you can consider doing another big thing. I want us to continue to evolve our mindset … Darrell Steinberg, mayor, City of Sacramento

The old theory in this city has been that you do one big thing at a time and hope that generates enough revenue so five years later you can consider doing another big thing. I want us to continue to evolve our mindset, and to back up that we can do more than one big thing at a time, we can be creative and we must diversify our approach to building a modern economy.

You were the driver of a significantly slimmed-down renovation plan for the Convention Center. How does that position Sacramento to compete with other cities in the high-dollar convention trade?

No. 1, we’re going to be able to accommodate more than one convention at a time. Second, we have also lacked cohesive and efficient meeting space, which is what conventioneers really want. We’re not building as much additional exhibit space, which was never proven to be the driver of conventions or the predicate to building more hotels. Instead we’re going to dramatically increase the meeting space, we’re going to fix the logistic issues around the existing center that prevents multiple conferences to occur at one time, and we’re partnering with [commercial real estate developer] David Taylor and others to build a 350-room hotel on the east end, which is part of the reason to expand the Convention Center in the first place. To have a hotel that is continuous and connected to the Convention Center for additional meeting space is going to make us even more attractive. We’ve also got plans for a second phase, but I want to make sure we are diversifying our investments in this tourism destination area because it’s not just about conventions — it’s about arts, culture, festival and branding this city as the place to be.

How prepared is Sacramento to deal with a potential economic downturn?

We are in pretty good shape but we have more work to do. CalPERS dropping its investment rate from 7.5 to 7 percent translates into a nearly $30 million increase in the City’s employer contribution. While we do have a surplus, we have to address that issue and we also have to renew our Measure U — the house and sales tax — which expires in 2019. If we do that we’ve got two upsides that offset the pension issue.

But No. 1 is the issue of marijuana. The voters said yes and so we’re adopting the philosophy that, so long as it is regulated and taxed, it is appropriate for us to allow the cultivation, distribution, manufacturing and testing [within city limits] of what would become a legal drug. Regulation is key because it’s already going on underground and we’re not getting a penny of it. We will have to use a significant amount of the money from permitting fees to increase law enforcement to shut down the illegal parts of the industry, but there is a significant upside in terms of revenue. We’ve [also] got to grow the economy. That’s the only way we’re going to grow a tax base that is going to allow us to have relative stability over a long period of time and to increase our investments in youth and in public safety.

Verizon is planning to invest over $100 million in wireless infrastructure around the city. What does this mean for our economic environment?

The usual government way of procuring anything is to put out a standard request for proposal, allow everybody to compete and then pick one and let’s hope it works out. But we are doing something very different here: What we did is ask Verizon to make us an offer about how they wanted to work with us to procure technology in our city. As long as it was fair to the taxpayers, and has the potential to make Sacramento the lead demonstration city for these new technologies, we said we will work with you.

Verizon said, ‘Let us put up 103 small cell units. Let us have a break on permitting fees as we go for 5G technology, and we will invest tens of millions of dollars in your fiber optic networks for the exclusive use of the city. We’ll put Wi-Fi in 27 lower-income areas. We’ll allow you to use our technology to help fix problems in your most congested intersections in the city and we’ll have a partnership.’ We said yes. And it’s not an exclusive agreement. Our message to everybody else is to come on in and do the same kinds of things with us. We’re trying to think differently about the traditional government way of interacting with technology and with the private sector.  

Sacramento is one of numerous U.S. cities banding together to continue with the tenets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Why is this important?   

California is on its way to becoming the fifth largest economy in the world. You better believe it’s important that the capital city take a strong stand when it comes to the future of the planet, because California is so central to that future. We’ve also demonstrated that you can have a better environment, a healthier climate, and also forge ahead to invest in and create a renewable energy industry and create a new economy. You’re either looking backward at part of the past and nostalgic about what was, or you’re looking forward. That’s an easy choice for me.

Sacramento has struggled to be seen as something more than just a government town. How do you see this city’s identity now and going forward?

Opportunity cannot be had by government alone … because we’re too subject to the ups and downs of a state budget. Yes, we have an advantage here in terms of our physical proximity to the Silicon Valley, to the Bay Area and to UC Davis, Berkeley, Stanford, Sacramento State, as well as a great community college system. Shame on us if we don’t take greater advantage of all of those attributes to build a modern, high-wage, private sector economy that focuses on our natural strengths, whether it’s food, agriculture, tourism or technology. We have announced a new arts leader as well as a large increase in funding ($500,000 over the next two years) for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. We’re also changing what I call the anti-busking ordinance that prohibits live entertainment out in our urban corridor. We’re going to seed creative economy projects in each of the City Council districts, and the city is hungry for more. 

What issues should the City of Sacramento prioritize? Tweet us @comstocksmag.