The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Friday, April 20, 2007

What Lessons Do We Learn From Dixon Downs: Why are Some Development Projects Doomed to Failure?

We have not discussed Dixon Downs Race Track much here. For one thing, there have been more than enough Davis issues that have simply kept us occupied. For another, I sense the last thing that the good folks opposing the Dixon Downs Racetrack wanted was the sense that the liberal freaks in Davis were somehow pulling the strings.

That said, we must say something about this nice victory for the little guy over the big corporation. After all, the big back race track folks who angered just about everyone down in Dixon including other folks who are often big and bad in their own right like Campbell's Soup, spent over $500,000 to win the passage of the track. And let's face it, $500,000 in Dixon dollars is probably more like $2 million or more Davis dollars.

Let us not forget just how this started--a 4-1 vote by the City Council approved the race track. Not deterred, the grassroots folks down in Dixon started collecting signatures and forced the issue onto the ballot. And then they defeated it by a wide margin. This is Dixon's Covell Village vote. A great victory, as I said for the small guy.

At the end of the day, this gets me thinking about what all of this means exactly. Since November of 2005, we have seen three major votes on big development projects--two in Davis and one in Dixon. Target very narrowly passed and both Dixon Downs and Covell Village were handily defeated.

Why did Target pass and the other two get defeated? All three represented fundamental and large disruptions to life and we know it in their respective communities. The most interesting thing I have found is that even among those who supported Covell Village, there were concerns about size and infrastructure. Moreover, many of the people who opposed Covell Village were not what we might call knee-jerk zero growthers. Instead the fundamental belief is that that area could not support a massive influx of residents. Covell Blvd. had no easy access to the freeway and not easy way to expand to support another 6,000 residents and their accompanying traffic.

However, I think there is another factor at work in Covell Village, that helps us understand both the Target Vote and the Dixon Vote. The upside for Covell Village did not positively affect the average Davis resident. What does the average Davis resident gain from 2,000 or so housing units? If you live here, affordable housing is probably not a huge inducement. So for most who supported Covell Village there had to be some sort of business decision or philosophical decision that led to that support. There was no direct benefit to the average voter. So you had a calculation where most of the negatives of passing the development project--traffic congestion and other infrastructure problems outweighed any benefit.

Target passed by the skin of its teeth precisely because unlike Covell Village, a larger percentage of people could see an actual and direct benefit that could for enough of them offset the negatives. People wanted a large store where they could do a large amount of affordable shopping in town. People wanted a place (or at least enough) that they could purchase bulk amounts of cheap consumer goods. I am not saying that passage was inevitable, because I think Target could have been defeated under some circumstances, but Target at least presented a possibility of passage.

That leads us to Dixon Downs Racetrack. The people I have spoken to on this issue are of two minds. Some are strongly opposed to it because of environmental, traffic, noise, and congestion concerns (see the Covell Village arguments). Others (and these are primarily Davis people) simply do not really care. Either they moderately support it as a revenue generator or they do not care at all. I have not met a person who actually wants the track because they will attend horse races. And herein lies the point. The vast majority of people in Dixon were voting to approve or deny a project that provided a good that they would not consume and that many had no interest in consuming.

At the end of the day, the Dixon Downs vote came down to how much weight you gave economic development or how much you personally had to gain from such a project. For the average Dixon voter, like the average Covell Voter in Davis, the positives from this project without the personal appeal, just did not justify the disruption and the project failed. We are talking about a project failing in a town with many big box stores and no qualms about growth and development.

The lesson that we learn is that projects of this magnitude need to have a broader appeal to the residents other than--it is good for the economy. Because if that is all they have going for them, the measures will not pass. The easiest vote in politics is the status quo vote--embodied by a no vote on a referendum or initiative. You must convince voters to vote yes because their default is to vote no. To pass, they must entice voters with actual goods and services that the average person has a desire to consume. Dixon Downs failed much like Covell Village because the average person in Dixon probably had little desire to go to the race tracks.

The Woodland Daily Democrat is already suggesting Woodland as a location for the race track. Not sure that is as appealing a location to have it off of I-5 as it was on the I-80 corridor.

As they write:
Davis residents won't mind the horse-racing facility going to Woodland - even through they were opposed to Dixon - because Woodland is generally out of sight and out of mind to Davisites. The Davis City Council was worried about increased traffic on I-80. They most likely won't worry about more traffic on I-5, Highway 113, or even I-505, let alone Woodland's Main Street.
While they are probably correct, they had better hope that Woodland residents do not try to place the issue on the ballot, but we all know what would have then.

A few weeks ago I took issue with the suggestion that Measure J was not a growth inhibitor. The data clearly show that it is. One of the outcomes of Measure J is that they will need to design projects that do one of two things. Either they need to not draw criticism and strong opposition or they need to provide a good that the majority of residents of Davis think they want to consume at some point.

The former point requires that the project not threaten to displace existing business nor threaten to jam the local streets with traffic. In other words--no major disruption to the lives of the average resident. Neither Covell Village nor Target succeeded in this respect. Target however was able to pass by the skin of its teeth because it provided just enough people with the inducement of goods they might want to consume.

In the case of Target, that was just enough inducement to outweigh concerns about a whole variety of issues. For those thinking that this is license to try to bring in another big-box, I would think again. Target was in many ways a perfect storm in Davis--it filled a niche in the economy that did not exist and Target while to many of us was anti-progressive, it was also not Wal-Mart. I am not certain that another big-box fills quite that niche and so I would think it would be difficult to bring in another--unless the council simply does not bring it for a vote in the future.

In the end, Dixon Downs was doomed to fail because once again, the average person was not excited by the prospect of convenient horse racing. All those people could see was more traffic and more growth on their border and that was not worth the trade-off. Democracy prevailed in Dixon this week, it was a victory for the little guy over the big guy.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting