For over two years, the Greater Modesto Chamber of Commerce has undertaken a Pathway to Prosperity initiative to address our community’s chronic unemployment and lack of prosperity.
The scope of the problem is enormous. There are over 30,0001 people unemployed in our County. Many more are underemployed. Over 44,0002 additional people drive between 1 and 5 hours per day to and from work.
Our high schools graduate a new crop of capable students each year, many of whom seek university educations. But, too many of the most capable never come back to Modesto. Their skills, potential and entrepreneurial energies are exported to other communities that care about creating prosperity more than we do.
This general lack of jobs, opportunity and prosperity worsens many of the problems our community faces. It is a major contributor to our problems with crime, gangs and drugs. It is the reason many retail spaces sit empty. It stresses local government budgets. We have heard over and over from representatives of the Stanislaus County Economic Development and Workforce Alliance that we have missed many opportunities to bring in core businesses to our community. One principal reason – we do not have near enough land in our community that is shovel-ready for new or expanding businesses near major transportation arteries.
So, the Chamber, through its Land Use and Transportation Committee, decided to create an approach to get the City moving towards real economic development. The Pathway to Prosperity analyzed transportation improvements necessary to serve existing job centers such as downtown Modesto and the Beard Industrial Tract. The Pathway to Prosperity designated two very large Job Study Areas to the west and north of Modesto. The Chamber intended these Job Study Areas to be analyzed carefully to thoroughly review all the ingredients necessary for job creation success – including the willingness of landowners to change their land into business parks for a variety of uses from offices to modern logistics.
The Pathway to Prosperity also acknowledged the importance of our agri-business industry and farmlands by calling for the creation of large Agricultural Investment Zones where Ag investment could be protected from the pressure for urbanization. This would ensure that our Ag industry can continue far into the future.
The Pathway even included the idea that should Modesto require additional lands for residential development outside its current General Plan, such development should be done to the east where ag soils are not as fertile. Separately, the Chamber endorsed a residential urban limit initiative that would allow residential development to the west and north only if Modestans voted to allow it.
We believe our entire approach recognizes and celebrates the fact that our economy is based on agriculture. But, we also recognize that Modesto will be a stronger and more vibrant community if we can diversify our economy without displacing our ag base.
In response to advocacy from the Chamber and co-sponsors, City staff recommended amendments to its general plan that included some but not all of the Pathway to Prosperity. We supported those amendments that were ultimately endorsed by the Planning Commission because it would get our community closer to having those shovel-ready business parks and industrial sites that we need so badly.
Unfortunately, the consideration of an amendment to Modesto’s General Plan took a turn to acrimonious debates and charges. As the emotional appeals continued, it became clear that more analysis – including gauging landowner support – should have and needs to occur in the Study Areas.
Lost in this debate was that the Pathway embraced self-determination for our 12,000 neighbors in Salida. Because fewer people live in Wood Colony, it did not occur to us that a similar notion should apply there. While we may not agree with our neighbors on all the details – such as appropriate boundaries both for their communities and for the City of Modesto – the basic notion that existing residents and landowners outside the Modesto city limits should have a voice in designing the future we all share is sensible.
Indeed, we believe that the City Council felt they were taking heed and “leaving Wood Colony alone” by changing the proposed land use designation from business park to agriculture. However, many in Wood Colony do not see the Council action as helpful and still feel threatened by inclusion in the City’s general plan.
We believe that by identifying common ground, forthrightly addressing areas of disagreement, and resolving those through discussion and deliberation, we can design a future that can be embraced by all of us to respect and preserve much of our agricultural heritage while strategically diversifying our economy to increase jobs and prosperity for our families. We in no way minimize the challenges faced in balancing these competing interests, but we encourage the Modesto City Council to continue working on bringing more jobs and more prosperity to our community.