Modesto chamber proposes ways to attract business

kvaline@modbee.comMay 15, 2013 

JBL Hwy 132 1

JOAN BARNETT LEE / jlee@modbee.com Highway 132 near 5th street and Highway 99 in Modesto is pictured on Thursday morning (10-27-11). There are plans in the works to improve Highway 132.

JOAN BARNETT LEE — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate text Kevin Valine
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: City of Modesto and nonprofits
    Bio: Kevin Valine has been a copy editor and reporter at The Bee since January 2006. He's worked at the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and Paradise Post as a reporter and copy editor. He's a graduate of San Jose State.
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    E-mail: kvaline@modbee.com

— The Modesto Chamber of Commerce has an ambitious economic development plan to stop what it sees as missed opportunities and bring prosperity to the city.

The proposal calls for more shovel-ready land to attract businesses, such as Blue Diamond, which recently built an almond processing plant in Turlock; upgrading Highway 132 from two to four lanes so it can serve as a direct link to the Bay Area; and improving other major roads.

The chamber believes shovel-ready land and better roads will set the stage for growth and jobs.

The chamber says its proposal recognizes the need to protect agriculture, which generated $3 billion in revenue in 2011, according to the most recent Stanislaus County crop report.

However, the proposal does call for setting aside several thousand acres of farmland east of Highway 99 for business parks and other commercial uses.

Mayor Garrad Marsh, who has seen the proposal, said while it has some good points, it goes too far in setting aside that much farmland. "I think it's an overreach," he said.

Chamber Chief Executive Officer and President Cecil Russell said his organization developed the plan because no one else has stepped forward to address the critical issue of bringing in well-paying jobs.

Chamber officials acknowledged that the proposal includes elements that may not be completed for decades, but it also has short-term fixes, such as improving downtown traffic patterns for tractor-trailers.

The chamber's land use and transportation committee has spent 18 months developing the plan, soliciting input from local governments, community groups and others. The chamber is expected to present the proposal to the City Council on May 28.

Russell and land use and transportation committee members Craig Lewis, Chris Murphy, George Petrulakis and Bill Zoslocki reviewed the plan Wednesday with The Bee's editorial board. The highlights include:

• Having Stanislaus County become a "self-help county" by passing a sales tax for roads. Chamber officials said that for every dollar generated by the tax, the county would receive $1 from the state and $1 from the federal government for road projects.

Stanislaus County voters rejected road sales taxes in 2006 and 2008, although the 2008 effort came close to passing. Chamber officials believe voters would be more willing to pass a road tax now, especially if it's presented as a job creator.

The chamber is looking at putting a countywide road tax on the November 2014 ballot. Marsh said some chamber members are worried that his proposal to put a Modesto public-safety tax on the ballot this November could hurt the road tax's chance of passing.

• Upgrading Highway 132 from two to four lanes so it can serve as the primary route to the Bay Area instead of Highways 99 and 120 and Interstates 205 and 580. Chamber officials said an upgraded Highway 132 would be a critical link for shipping goods to the Bay Area, although plans to improve Highway 132 have been proposed for decades.

• Increasing the amount of shovel-ready land for business parks. Petrulakis said shovel-ready land has utilities or a financing plan to install utilities and all of its entitlements, which are the government approvals needed to develop land.

Chamber officials said the city has a dearth of such land. Because of that, Modesto could not compete for the Blue Diamond plant or the Amazon distribution center being built in Patterson. Petrulakis said Turlock and Patterson have set aside far much more shovel-ready land than Modesto, even though Modesto is by far Stanislaus County's largest city. The chamber proposes that Modesto set aside land for business parks north of Kiernan Avenue, bordered by Salida and Del Rio.

The chamber proposes setting aside business park land east of Highway 99, from Salida at the north to roughly Kansas Avenue to the south and Beckwith Road to the west. That's prime farmland and about four times more land than the 1,000 acres Modesto has set aside at that location for business parks.

Chamber officials acknowledge that is controversial but said they want to protect farmland through what they call agriculture investment zones west of Highway 99 and southeast of Modesto. The chamber said the zones would give farmers the certainty their land would stay agricultural, giving them the confidence to invest in their land and increase production.

Marsh said he agrees the city does not have shovel-ready land for a project as big as Amazon or Blue Diamond. But he said the city is working on creating it.

Russell said the chamber has not taken a position on Marsh's proposal for a public-safety tax because it has not seen the details. Marsh said the proposal still is being developed.

Some chamber members believe a road tax would make Modesto more prosperous, allowing the city to hire more police officers and firefighters.

Marsh believes a public-safety tax would make Modesto more prosperous because a safe city can keep and attract business. "I'm not willing to continue to have our city be unsafe to maybe build some roads in 10 years," he said.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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