Saturday, January 29, 2005

Strong Closing

End of the year statistics show Solano still most affordable
By Barbara Smith/Business Writer, The Reporter

Home sales in Solano County and the Bay Area finished out 2004 with the second strongest December on record, a real estate information service reported.

Among the nine Bay Area counties, Solano County boasted the highest median price increase - 25.1 percentage - followed closely by Napa County at 23 percent. A recorded 1,053 homes closed escrow, and the median sales price jumped from $323,000 in December 2003 to $404,000 in December 2004.

Yet compared with the other eight Bay Area counties, Solano County remains the most affordable for home buyers.

Dixon real estate broker Gary Archer of Archer & Ficklin described the real estate market of 2004 as "dramatic."

"It is a strong indicator of supply and demand, and prospective buyers quickly default into a geographic location that they can afford," Archer said. "And in relative terms, Solano County is still affordable."

Archer, who has a 25-year background primarily in the land business, said it's all relative. A
couple working in the city and county of San Francisco cannot find affordable housing. Next, they try Contra Costa and Walnut Creek area, but that doesn't make the grade, Archer said. The next step is Solano County.

"Even though its pricey, it's become affordable," he said. "And for the folks who can't make it in Solano County, to some extent they're going up to Yuba County."
In the Dixon market, Archer said there is land in Dixon that is in the hands of good home builders.

"We are hoping to sell some southwest Dixon home construction this year, and have sales take place either late in '05 or in the spring of '06, and they're going to reflect the current market," he said.

In the nine-county Bay Area region, a total of 11,068 new and resale houses and condos were sold. That was up 1.6 percent from 10,897 in November, and down 2.5 percent from 11,354 for December last year, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

The year-ago December sales count was the strongest for any December in DataQuick's statistics, which go back to 1988.

The interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 5.34 percent in mid December 2003, it was 5.23 percent a year later, according to market tracker National Financial News Services.
The median price paid for a Bay Area home was $533,000 last month, matching the record set in November. That was up 16.4 percent from $458,000 for December a year ago. Year-over-year price increases have been in the 15-18 percent range since April.

DataQuick, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, monitors real estate activity nationwide and provides information to consumers, educational institutions, public agencies, lending institutions, title companies and industry analysts.

The typical monthly mortgage payment that Bay Area buyers committed themselves to paying was $2,350 in December, unchanged from November. A year ago it was $2,045. It peaked at $2,450 in June when mortgage interest rates were somewhat higher. In today's dollars the payment reached $2,406 in April 1990.

And what about the 2005 market?

"I think it's going to be steady, I think that there will be a percentage increase, but I don't think it's going to be as dramatic in 2004," Archer said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at

Thursday, January 27, 2005

VALLEJO CITY COUNCIL members Joanne Schivley and Tony Pearsall head to the front of the State Farm building for Wednesdays ribbon-cutting ceremony beside the statue facing Mare Island Way. Photo: David Pacheco/Times-Herald Posted by Hello

State Farm officially opens new office site

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

Architectural controversy aside, most people at Wednesday's official dedication of State Farm's new Vallejo facility agreed the good of it being there far outweighs any bad.

Several hundred State Farm Insurance Company employees and local business and civic leaders attended the dedication of the company's new Vallejo Operations Center along Mare Island Way on Wednesday afternoon. Most of the event took place inside two large white tents, erected behind the building as insurance against inclement weather which never materialized.

The building's design and placement along the waterfront has generated some controversy since the decision was announced about two years ago that the firm was interested in moving part of its operations to Vallejo. Some locals objected to the office's location on the waterfront and others didn't appreciate the look of the building itself.

Whatever remained of the controversy was barely evident at Wednesday's event. Even City Councilmember Joanne Schivley, who publicly opposed the building's location, said she was pleased the company is in Vallejo. She also said the controversy should be an object lesson to help the city avoid similar problems in the future.

"The addition of State Farm to the Vallejo business community is very positive, but I still would have preferred the building be further from the street," Schivley said. "And Vallejo needs design guidelines. You can't hold people to a standard if you don't have an established standard in place."

Continentals of Omega Boys & Girls Club founder Philmore Graham, who also attended, said he never had a problem with the building's location or form.

Besides, he said, "It's great for the community. And on a national level, State Farm supports the Boys and Girls Club."

Speaking to the crowd, Vallejo Mayor Tony Intintoli Jr. said he is "one of those who thinks the building is beautiful.

"This is a great day for us in Vallejo," Intintoli said. "We've anxiously awaited its arrival. And we know your employees will buy and shop downtown."

Intintoli expressed hope that Vallejo would "move forward with the downtown development, and bring more companies like (State Farm) who find Vallejo a good place to locate."

State Farm's Mercedes Ortiz explained how the firm's operations center wound up in Vallejo following a July 2002 corporate decision to close half the company's four regional offices. That decision included moving the firm's claims department from Rohnert Park to "someplace in the East Bay," she said.

Research and employee input led to the decision to build in Vallejo, she said. And, said State Farm vice president Warren Spikes, Vallejo seems to have been the right choice.

"We're very excited about this endeavor," Spikes said. "It's a long time coming, but well worth the wait."

Construction on the building began about a year ago and was completed in October. Company personnel moved into the building in November, said company spokesman Lonny Haskins. There are some 200 employees working in the Vallejo office, many who commute from outside the city. The firm plans to hire more people in the coming years, Haskins said.
Spikes said he knows Vallejo to be "an active waterfront community that throughout its history has attracted innovative, hardworking people."

Among other things, he said, this makes Vallejo "a good fit for State Farm today and for where it's going in the future."

- E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at or call 553-6824.

Marketing the State

Governor's adviser says business can be attracted

By Barbara Smith/Business Writer, The Reporter

Local officials can better market California if they emphasize its desirous climate and lifestyle, and its quality workforce, among other attributes, the governor's chief business promoter told the 22nd annual meeting of Solano Economic Development Corp. on Wednesday.

David Crane, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top aide for jobs and economic growth, spoke to 225 business leaders and elected officials at a luncheon held at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fairfield. Solano EDC is a public-private partnership that attracts new employers and industry to Solano County.

A charismatic Crane alternately informed and entertained the festive crowd, but primarily underscored the governor's philosophy that a good economy and local promoters create jobs and attract new business, not state government. By selling the unique assets of the state - not by offering tax breaks, incentives and free land - California will win in the long run, he said.
The job of the state is to lower unnecessary costs imposed on job creators, Crane said. "Government doesn't create jobs, and if they're not careful, they can kill jobs."

He added, "Government should treat job creators and workers as customers, rather than subjects."

When he took on his post, Crane said, he perceived a negative attitude from some businesses and organizations that plead for financial support from the government while seeming to ignore California's enormous, natural advantages.

The Golden State has the highest quality workforce, unbeatable lifestyle, an entrepreneurial culture, and clustering of key industries, he said. A new attitude is needed to go along with the governor's policies.

"California is simply a dream location for many kinds of enterprises," he said.

Crane pointed out that in the past 12 months, more than 150,000 jobs have been added, unemployment has dropped, and more than 17,000 public sector jobs have been eliminated.
Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, recently returned from Japan where they promoted tourism. In the spring, they will travel to China to sell California's products.

"If the governor had his druthers, he'd go everywhere in Asia."

Fairfield businessman Dick Banks asked how Crane felt about the Schwarzenegger changing the structure of government.

"I think that the reforms that the governor proposed were brilliant," Crane said. "The only people who don't like them are the vested interest groups ... those people have very deep pockets and they're going to fight like the dickens."

Solano County Supervisor Duane Kromm pointed out that present governor and former governor Gray Davis had not addressed what he called a $68 billion "structural deficit."

"Arnold hasn't done it, Gray didn't do it," Kromm said.

Crane responded that a $68 billion structural deficit cannot be eliminated in one year. "You cannot close the structural deficit without reforming the process," he said. And that is what the governor's new budget intends to accomplish.

Barbara Smith can be reached at

Monday, January 24, 2005

Vacaville's auto row continues to thrive with plans for Saturn to relocate its dealership along Orange Drive at Orange Tree Circle. (Rick Roach/The Reporter) Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Wheeling and Dealing

Vacaville's auto row continues to thrive

By Barbara Smith/Business Writer

Development of Vacaville's auto mall has raced forward since the first plans to expand it emerged five years ago.

Today, Orange Drive's auto row boasts 10 dealerships. Whether shoppers are looking for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a family friendly sport utility vehicle, it is arguably becoming the place to shop.

Construction of new dealerships moved quickly after Lithia Motors announced its decision to purchase a former amusement park property on Orange Drive at the beginning of the decade. Deals with the Barber Dealership Group and Saturn soon followed.
The momentum continues now that Saturn has plans for one of the last parcels available in the busy sector.

Under review with city planners, Saturn plans to build an 18,000-square-foot, two-level dealership at the corner of Orange Drive and Orange Tree Circle, next to the Volkswagen dealership and across from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The site plan allows for 116 parking spaces and driveways on both sides of the corner.

"We're pretty psyched about the facility," said Todd Barnes, president of North Bay Saturn Group. "It's going to be gorgeous. I think that the whole Vacaville auto row is just the right place to be, and we're very fortunate to have the opportunity."

The new dealership will replace the existing Saturn of Vacaville, presently located east of the site. That dealership has served as a satellite sales only location for 10 years, Barnes said. Currently, Saturn customers have to go to the Fairfield store for service.

Now, the new dealership will offer service in addition to sales. Saturn decided that the market has grown to the point where it needed a full service facility for sales and service.
Barnes said he's very optimistic about the Vacaville market.
"It's a little more youth oriented, the city is growth oriented and that will bode well for us in the future," he said. "We really feel like the timing is right now. As Saturn owner families grow, we'll have vehicles that will meet their transportation needs."

The timing is also right because Saturn is adding to its product portfolio with larger cars, like a seven-passenger crossover van named the Relay. Next year, a two-seater roadster called the Sky will debut and immediately following a new, extremely stylish four-door called the Aura, Barnes said.

"General Motors is really focusing on Saturn at this point to revitalize the GM brand, very similar to the renaissance that Cadillac went through a few years ago," Barnes said. "Saturn is moving upscale, and will end up being a brand within the General Motors family that will fall between Pontiac and Cadillac."

The new facility will cost up to $2.5 million to build, and will add about 25 to 30 jobs, Barnes said. He expects city approval by the end of the month, and hopes construction will commence by the end of March.

Peyman Behvan, associate planner with the city, said staff is excited about the new Saturn dealership.

"We're pretty excited that they're moving to a more prominent location and obviously expanding. We're happy about that, and we'll do what we can to facilitate that," he said.
Behvan said auto dealerships are important to the city.

"It's good for the city in a tax dollars sense, but it's good for business generally," he said. "And we have a pretty good working relationship with the dealerships."

There are still a few parcels of land along Orange Drive, but there's no telling if more dealerships will move in, Behvan said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Copart picks up salvage lot in Ohio

By Matthew Bunk

FAIRFIELD - Auto salvager Copart Inc. acquired its 108th salvage lot, a 16-acre facility in Strongsville, Ohio, the company announced Tuesday. Fairfield-based Copart has picked up dozens of lots in the past several years while the company's profits have surged to all-time highs. But the Strongsville facility, which will give the company a greater presence in the Cleveland area, is the first auto salvage lot acquisition of 2005. Last year, the company topped $400 million in sales with the help of online auto auction technology that eliminated the inconvenience of live auctions and juiced competition in bidding.

Copart is now pursuing ways to extend its second-generation Internet technology to industries other than used car sales. Rather than sit back on pre-tax profit growth ranging from 35 percent to 32 percent annually, the 23-year-old company continues to branch out. And national media has taken note. Forbes' columnist Richard Pathon called Copart the Sotheby's of Scrap in a Jan. 11 magazine article, noting that Copart has adapted the Internet to "the clunky business of auctioning wrecked cars, with results even crusty old Henry Ford would applaud."

Instead of going to live auctions, buyers can bid online in real time at all of the company's auto lots. And, as an effective middleman, Copart makes money from buyers who pay handling fees and from sellers - mostly insurance companies - in the form of a flat fee or commission.

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or

Thursday, January 13, 2005

BUILDING 117 at 1080 Nimitz on Mare Island, a former shipyard shop building, now houses offices and light industry. Photo: J.L. Sousa/Times-Herald Posted by Hello

Lennar spruces up Building 117, fills it with offices, light industry

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

After several months of renovation and marketing, Mare Island's Building 117 is now fully occupied, according to a Lennar Mare Island spokesman.
Located along the waterfront at Nimitz and Seventh Street, the 41,000-square-foot, 20-year-old former shop building now provides office and light industrial space ranging in size from 1,300 square feet to 10,000 square feet, said Lennar spokesman Jason Keadjian.

The renovation cost about $400,000, he said.

Construction included work on the building's roof, interior renovations and repairs to such systems as plumbing, he said.

Keadjian said about half the building's tenants are new to Vallejo; the rest are either transplants from elsewhere in the city or expansions. All told, the building's tenants bring about 40 new jobs to the island, he said.

Hal Pierce Electric, a longtime Vallejo contractor, said he was the first business to set up shop in the newly renovated building. The timing couldn't have been better for him, he said.

"I was the first one in the building," Pierce said. "We've been here since March. Before that, we were at 520 Broadway since 1947. My grandparents built the building in 1947, and the family sold it. That's why I moved."

Pierce said relocating has worked out well, and that watching the building and Mare Island in general beginning to thrive has made him excited about the future.

"It's wonderful," Pierce said. "I'm elated to be here. Lennar's been great to work with. And it seems like in just the past couple of months, the building has really filled up. The residential aspect of the island is getting off the ground.

"I think it's a sign the economy's finally improving. I feel more confident than I did even two weeks ago."

That's the kind of thing Lennar likes to hear, and hopes to hear more of in months to come, Keadjian said. "Lennar continues to evaluate, and where appropriate, invest money in capital improvements to Mare Island buildings," he said.

- E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at or call 553-6824.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Michelle Branton, foreground, is the publisher of Solano magazine. Branton and Julia Smith, the director of sales, started the magazine in November 2003. Photo: J.L. Sousa/Times-Herald Posted by Hello

Celebrating Solano

Local magazine spotlights where to go, what to see

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

If Sacramento and San Francisco can have their own magazines, Michelle Branton of Fairfield figured the Solano County area could, too.
So, in November 2003, she and her accountant husband, Michael Koks, launched Solano magazine, which, they said, has taken off faster and come further in the past year than they even could have hoped.

With Branton and Koks as publishers, Julia Smith of Fairfield as sales director, and some 30 full- and part-time staff working on each bi-monthly issue, Solano features stories and information of interest to people living and working in the Napa, Solano and Yolo county region.

"We found a hole in the market for this type of media locally," Branton said. "There's no major magazine covering this area and most newspapers cover only their very immediate area. We cover the counties in a broader way," Branton said. "If I wanted to find out what was going on in the cities next door to me, I'd have to get seven or eight newspapers, and that's not practical."

The public's reaction to Solano's first issue was an indication of how bright its future might be, Branton said.

"It was very exciting. We sold more than 500 copies in the first few weeks at Fairfield's Barnes & Noble, alone," Branton said. "They kept calling and asking for more copies."

A former marketing person originally from Hawaii, Branton, 32, said she has lived in Fairfield since high school. She spent most of her childhood criss-crossing the globe as her father followed the construction work with which he made his living.

"My father built railroads and airports and that sort of thing in the Middle East and South America and all over," Branton said. "We moved here in the mid-1980s."

Smith, on the other hand, is a Bay Area native originally from San Mateo. She moved to Fairfield about four years ago.

The two women, who met two summers ago when Branton sold Smith an ad, share a background in publishing and advertising and a vision for Solano magazine that together they seem to be bringing to fruition.

"I've worked with other magazines, and we did a little test marking to see if there was a readership and advertising market for this, and there was a significant and positive response, so we decided to take the plunge," Branton said.

Smith, a 38-year-old mother of two, said she thinks one reason for Solano's unusually rapid success - it took in just shy of $1 million in revenues in 2004 - is the area's unique location.

"Our reader base wants to find out what there is to see and do outside the local area as well as inside," Smith said. "We have a different type of reader than metro area readers. We don't have as many high-end places, and we'll go outside the area to shop to San Francisco and to Sacramento."

This, Branton adds, translates to "regional opportunities for both readership and advertising."

Smith said that as a shy child she hadn't hoped to grow up to be in advertising sales necessarily, she did always envision herself a businesswoman.

"I always wanted to be like (the Cybill Shepherd character in the television show) Moonlighting,' " Smith said. "Even as a youngster, I always wanted to be independent and successful."

A glossy, full-color, coffee-table-type publication, Solano focuses on "lifestyle where to go, what there is to do, where to shop and eat. Who's doing what, health care, education, real estate," Branton said. "A huge part of what we do is letting people know all the wonderful things there are to do around here."

Solano also contains insert publications, including its latest, "Celebrating the Arts" publication focusing on the arts in what Smith calls the "underserved counties of Napa, Solano and Yolo."

"It's an arts magazine we launched in November. It covers regional arts, and we have it as an additional insert and also as additional distribution to arts venues. Our goal is to elevate the recognition of the arts, regionally," Branton said.

Branton said she did not wake up one day and decide to publish a magazine. On the contrary, the idea's been percolating for a decade as she awaited the right opportunity.

"I love all aspects of this, especially the regional ones. I get to give back to the community. I get to hear great stories and promote great community enterprises, and I don't think there's anything better," Branton said.

Branton said one of Solano's most important focuses is on children's issues.

"We have a book review for kids and another for adults," Branton said. "We have youth accomplishments, a kids' calendar of events, a family feature called "Out and About," which suggests family-oriented places to go and things to do, like there's a dude ranch just outside of Winters that most people don't know about."

Though it takes most new publications five years just to break even, assuming they last that long, Branton said Solano did so its first year. Branton and Smith said they expect the business to grow in 2005.

Branton said she is especially enjoying the opportunity the magazine affords her to express her creative side and have a positive impact on the community in which she lives.

"I'm a creative person, always have been, and I handle that part of the magazine. And I really love people," Branton said. "The best part of this is learning about the local resources available here, and the amazing people famous and not-so-famous who live and accomplish amazing and inspiring things.

"I love this magazine for what its able to help me give back to the community," Branton added. "It's extremely satisfying. It's always been one of my life's goals. It's my way of doing Rotary, I guess."

Smith said she feels the same way.

"I'd rather do something for my community than work for a big corporation that may not have a direct impact on my community," she said.

But the main goal, the women said, is to produce the best magazine possible.

"We set a really high bar for quality and content, and it's maturing, the look and the feel, the editorial content, our response to our readers," Branton said.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Transit company grows

FAIRFIELD - MV Transportation expanded its transit services to two more areas, according to press releases that show the Fairfield-based company increased its employee base to more than 8,000.

The company recently began providing limited transit services in Warren County, Ohio, its eighth contract in that state.

It also has partnered with Elk Grove to provide transit services using remanufactured hybrid buses that run on gasoline and electric power. In the press release, MV Transportation called it an "environmentally friendly" bus service.

Genentech has happy employees

By Matthew Bunk

VACAVILLE - Not only is Genentech Inc. revered in the biotech industry as a leading drug-maker, it's also brewed some affection among its employees.

Based in South San Francisco, Genentech earned the No. 4 spot on Fortune Magazine's list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2005.

It was the seventh consecutive year that Genentech made the list. This year it trailed only three companies - family owned Wegman's Food Markets; W.L. Gore, the maker of GORE-TEX; and Republic Bancorp, a Michigan-based holding company for Republic Bank.

Companies were judged on "policies and culture" and the opinions of the company's own employees. Employees were asked to rate attitudes toward management, camaraderie and job satisfaction.

Genentech's manufacturing plant in Vacaville employs more than 500 people and is expected to grow to become the largest biotech manufacturing facility in the world by 2009. The expanded facility will employ more than 1,100, according to the company.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The extension of Georgia Street is part of the Redevelopment Plan implemented by the City of Vallejo. (Photo by Judith Sagami) Posted by Hello

Vallejo Hopes to Regain Identity

By Matthew Bunk

VALLEJO - When Richard Lemke's ship was decommissioned at Mare Island after World War II, it was easy to fall in love with Vallejo.

Sailors and businessmen stopped along downtown streets to discuss politics and sports. Women wearing fine dresses and white gloves shopped at various department stores, which at the time included a JC Penney Co. at its fashion peak and the very stylish City of Paris boutique.

It was a thriving waterfront city with so much potential Lemke and many of his shipmates decided to stay.

Almost 60 years later, Lemke is still here. But he's seen Vallejo change from a fashionable berg and Navy outpost to a city on the mend and trying to rediscover an identity many longtime residents believe got lost along the way.

Only recently, he said, has the excitement of Old Vallejo returned. He believes the city of crossroads is about to emerge from what future generations will look back on as a dark age.

"In five years you won't recognize this part of Vallejo," Lemke said during an interview at Mr. Ric Men's Clothing, a staple on Marin Street in downtown Vallejo. "I was here when downtown was thriving, and I've watched its demise. But things have starting to turn around."

More than 10,000 jobs left Vallejo when Mare Island closed in 1996. But that loss cut deeper than just jobs, as many residents believe the city's soul - steeped in Navy tradition - became a casualty as well.

Efforts to rejuvenate the city's shopping districts, to bring industrial jobs back and to create a sense of community have had limited impact in the past several years. Large employers such as K-Mart, General Mills and others continued to cut back and close.

Now, though, it's become easier to find replacements for businesses lost. And several large commercial projects promise to bring life back to one of California's oldest cities.

Investors, too, believe again in Vallejo.

Lennar Communities has spent roughly $45 million to ready Mare Island for homes and business parks; Seattle-based developer Triad has laid the groundwork for residential and retail complexes downtown; and Callahan-De Silva is trying to unite the community behind its vision for the waterfront, a critical piece of property that has awaited major development for more than 25 years.

Beyond the city's core is the county fairgrounds, where mall builder Mills Corp. hopes to put a lifestyle center full of retail shops, restaurants and other entertainment.

City leaders have authorized spending tens of millions of dollars on redevelopment projects throughout the city, an effort business leaders expect to pay off in the next decade. Some progress is evident already, said Michael Wilson of the architecture firm Arc Inc. and incoming chairman of the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce.

"Business has been booming in the last couple of years," Wilson said. "But there's so much more potential."

Wilson wants to return Vallejo to its history. Or, rather, bring the history back to Vallejo.

"People in San Francisco used to come to Vallejo to shop," he said. "That's the kind of revitalization we're hoping to see in Vallejo's future."

Lemke and other downtown merchants want desperately to believe that will happen. They've been waiting on promises of urban renewal since the city tore down much of the waterfront district in the 1950s and 1960s to make room for development that never happened.

Disconnecting downtown from its waterfront led to the demise Lemke and others still talk about. But recent efforts to expand main roadways - the Georgia Street thoroughfare was extended last year to reconnect the two districts - may bring the commercial neighborhoods back together.

The next step will be to recreate Mare Island as an economic engine and to take advantage of the waterway between the island and the mainland, Wilson said. Instead of letting the strait separate the two areas, it could provide an aesthetic advantage that improves the flow of commerce, he said.

"Vallejo is seeing a renewal as a community to live, work and play," he said. "Something that goes with all of those is the water, which wasn't as interesting with the Navy base across the way."

The water has always been a part of what Vallejo is - once as a conduit for the Navy, and now as a visual and economic enhancement for a city trying to find itself. The city, it seems, will find its future by tweaking what it used to be.

"Vallejo is moving forward," Wilson said. "Even though, if you want to see the tangible progress, some of these things are still a few years out."

No matter how much tradition has to move out of the way to make room for what Vallejo will become, the old timers will still hold memories of the 5 p.m. rush hour of sailors and shipbuilders disembarking from Mare Island.

"In the late afternoons when Mare Island let out, you couldn't even get across the street," Lemke said with a far-away look in his eyes. "That was when everyone would stop and talk and when window shopping was a big thing.

"Now you drive around and everybody is remodeling and fixing, and it's mostly new people that I don't know - and I used to know everybody."

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 265 or

Friday, January 07, 2005

Fairfield hires a tourism director

By Matthew Bunk

FAIRFIELD - It's going to be a challenge, but hotel owners and other merchants who could benefit from tourism have started to unveil plans they hope will make Fairfield a visitor's destination.

Fairfield and Suisun City already have the attractions - world-famous candy companies, vineyards and wineries, as well as an inland harbor and a brewery, according to those who want to bring more tourists to the area.

The challenge, they say, will be to advertise those resources in a way that makes people want to spend time and money in the cities between Sacramento and San Francisco.

Vacaville recently began its own tourism-based organization, and Vallejo also has one.

To do so in Fairfield, the fledgling tourism bureau needed money and a leader - two things that recently fell into place.

Earlier this week, the Fairfield City Council approved a transfer of roughly $158,000 to the group in charge of the tourism effort. And to head up the organization, a tourism committee chose Solano County resident Candy Pierce as the top tourism executive.

Both decisions, as well as the formation of a marketing plan, should lead to more exposure for Fairfield and Suisun, said Kevin Johnson, general manager of Fairfield's Hilton Garden Inn and a leader of the tourism movement.

Johnson said there will be more announcements next month, including a site for the long-planned Fairfield Welcome Center.

"We're ready to give birth to this thing," he said in a phone interview. "Everything is coming together, but there's still a lot that hasn't been finalized. For example, we're still negotiating on the land (for the Welcome Center)."

As part of the marketing plan, the tourism group will design a Web site to promote the area and put up a 60-foot sign next to the freeway to draw attention to the future Welcome Center. The sign will go up near the Fairfield Auto Mall just off Interstate 80.

The money to do those things came from a 2 percent hotel assessment tacked on to the price of an overnight stay at all Fairfield hotels. The added fee, which the city began collecting last spring, comes to about $1 for every $50 spent on rooms.

The yearly budget for the tourism group will be about $260,000. It will be less in 2005 because the fee wasn't collected for the entire 12 months of 2004.

Business leaders expect to get much more in return for the money spent to promote tourism. Because visitors spend money and then leave, tourism as an industry is even more attractive, said David Sommer, executive director for the Fairfield-Suisun Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a desirable industry that uses very few city services," Sommer said. "And it increases the city's tax base."

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or

Fairgoers take advantage of good opening day weather on rides from Butler Amusements at the May FAir. (Mike McCoy/DAILY REPUBLIC FILE (2004)) Posted by Hello

The pride of Dixon: May Fair is more than a festival to Solano town

By Sarah Arnquist

DIXON - The Dixon May Fair's arms of influence stretch around more than a century of life in this quiet northern Solano County town.

The May Fair and the town are barely distinguishable as separate entities. No one alive today can remember a time when the May Fair didn't interrupt everyday life with three event-filled days in the spring.

When the fair began in 1876, Dixon had only 1,200 residents, compared to its more than 16,000 residents today. As the town changed through the decades the fair changed, but residents such Carlene Blaylock - who has lived in Dixon all her life - cannot imagine life without the May celebration.

The May Fair is central to life in Dixon, said Blaylock, 67, who at each stage of her life has been involved in the fair.

As a child, Blaylock looked forward to the excitement of the fair.

"When you're a kid, it's magic," she said.

As a teenager, the fair was tons of fun. The May Queen election and the rodeo were grand events, and she spent countless hours creating floats for the annual parade.

As an adult, Blaylock volunteered many times and brings her grandchildren to experience the same magic she did as a child.

"The whole town loves it," she said.

The Dixon May Fair operates as the 36th Agricultural District of California and is overseen by the Division of Fairs and Expositions within the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

A nine-member Fair Board appointed by the governor directs the fair's operations. Fair Manager Mike Green and two additional employees work full-time throughout the year to plan the fair.

In 2002, the fair had an economic impact of about $4.6 million in Solano County. It created 56 jobs and generated $40,412 in local taxes, according to the CDFA.

The CDFA also reported that in 2002 more than 4,000 exhibits sprawled across the fair grounds. Children and adults from around the county bring their livestock, plants and creative arts to display at the fair. The fair also attracts local community and nonprofit groups such as 4-H, which organize and participate in the fair.

The fair's success depends on committed and creative volunteers, Green said.

One of the fair's greatest assets is the nonprofit sponsor organization Friends of the Dixon May Fair, Green said. Chairman Donnie Huffman said the $274,000 the group has raised from alcohol sales over the years all goes back into improving the fairgrounds. The volunteer group donates its time so the fair remains vibrant and full of the traditional small-town feel, Huffman said.

"We try to keep it as close to the old style as we always had it," Huffman said.

Fairs of the past

In spring 1876 Dixon residents wanted an excuse to throw a celebration. The town decided to celebrate the country's 100th birthday, but didn't wait until the traditional July 4. It threw the party on May 1.

The party must have been a good one, because the May Day celebration became an annual event, growing each year with games, activities and picnics, according to the fair's unofficial historian, Ardeth Riedel.

"Any good excuse to gather was a wonderful thing," said 70-year-old Riedel, a lifelong Dixon resident and former fair board member.

By 1886, a few local gentlemen, itching for a place to show off their racehorses, purchased 20 acres at 655 S. First St. to build the Dixon Driving Park. Dixon has celebrated May Day on those same 20 acres since, thus giving Dixon the bragging rights of the having the oldest continuous agricultural fair in the state of California.

Solano County adopted the May Day celebration for its county fair site in 1916. Recognizing the growing popularity of horse racing and a potential source of revenue, California legalized horse-race betting in 1933. Dixon racing flourished and the sport generated tax money which in turn funded fairs all across the state as it still does.

The Dixon Racetrack was one of the few tracks in the state that remained open through World War II. Following the war, county political powerhouses emerged in Vallejo and joined forces to "steal" the fair in the late 1940s, Dixon residents say.

Unwilling to give up their May Day celebration, Dixon formally adopted the name the Dixon May Fair in the early 1950s and continued hosting a full-blown fair. Through the decades the fair has had good and bad years. There have been bleak periods when the future of the fair was uncertain - such as the mid-1960s, when the town rallied together for a letter-writing campaign asking the governor to help save the fair.

Dixon has grown, and new people have moved in, but the fair has largely remained the same, Green said. Dixon shines with small-town charm for the four days in May when the town swells with fairgoers.

Riedel has spent hours recording the fair's history so the traditions and rural aspect of the fair endure for future generations.

"The May Fair has been a part of my life and I think a lot of people here in town want the new people in town to know what it's about," Riedel said.

Future of the fair

The fair always has been a place for children to learn about agriculture, but more recently the fair has assumed the additional role of educating Dixon newcomers, Huffman said.

Dixon has grown by more than 6,000 people since 1990. Many of these new residents come from the city without an agricultural background so, to them, the fair is a place learn where their milk and eggs come from, Huffman said.

"The fairgrounds are another arm of education," he said.

The challenge for the future will be to involve these new residents in the fair while maintaining the fair's rural feeling, Huffman said.

The May Fair's greatest change in recent years came in 1996 when the fair first brought nationally known entertainers to Dixon. Following two rained-out years, the fair emerged from dire financial problems after selling out concerts by Eddie Money and Credence Clearwater Revisited.

"It changed the way we do business, and it was music that allowed us to do that," Green said. "Maybe it could have been something else, but I don't think so."

Strong presales to the 2005 Lynyrd Skynyrd concert saved the fair again this year.

The fair may encounter another great change soon. As part of the Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneger's campaign to downsize and increase efficiency of state government, all fairs may be released from state control and be allowed to operate as private businesses. That would eliminate much of the bureaucratic background work and could prove to be a positive move for the Dixon May Fair, Green said.

"The May Fair could flourish independently," Green said.

Whether the Dixon May Fair will endure for another 130 years is unknown. As Dixon grows and changes, some aspects of the May Fair will certainly change, too. New management may soon take over as Green and his assistant, Dolores Garton, near retirement. Technology will play an increasingly large role in exhibits. Newcomers will come in with new ideas, and events will be added, deleted and renovated.

But the general consensus seems to be that the spark of pride that has compelled Dixon residents to put on the May Fair for more than 100 years will not die out anytime soon.

Reach Sarah Arnquist at 427-6953 or

Fast Facts:

What: Dixon May Fair, California's oldest continuous agricultural fair in California

When: The first weekend in May

Why: For 130 years the Dixon has hosted the agricultural fair and now brings in big-name entertainment like this year's headliner Lynyrd Skynyrd.

More info:


1876: The First May Day Celebration in Dixon.

1886: Dixon Fairgrounds purchased and racetrack built.

1916: Becomes official site of Solano County Fair.

1933: California legalizes racehorse betting and Dixon racetrack flourishes.

1936: Dixon May Day becomes the 36th District Fair Association in California.

1942: Dixon horse racing is one of few to remain open during World War II and attracts people from all of the state.

1950: Political powerhouses from Vallejo arrange for the county fair to change locations.

1950s: Officially called Dixon May Fair.

1960s: Dixon rallies to save the May Fair.

1996: May Fair enters the music entertainment business.

2005: May Fair brings back the demolition derby.

Who: Dixon May Fair Manager Mike Green

A self-described "jack of all trades," Green oversees the year-round planning of the Dixon May Fair. In his 11 years at the helm of the May Fair, Green's largest move has been to shape the fair into an event that draws nationally known musical talents such as Faith Hill and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Green, 64, saw his first May Fair as a child growing up in Fairfield in the 1940s. Then in high school, the fair really grabbed his attention.

"It was the place to go to meet pretty girls," Green said.

Green came to the May Fair knowing little about livestock and agriculture in 1993, but his 10 years as a designer at the Nut Tree in Vacaville trained him to plan and market big events, he said.

Along with his business assistant, Dolores Gorton, and grounds manager, Bob Botana, Green oversees the fairgrounds and organizes the four-day event that has a yearly operating budget of almost $1 million.

The fair today "has pretty much become an extravaganza," Green said.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Large Scale Biology senior scientist Hal Padgett (left) with scientists Andy Vaewhongs and Yen Teh (right) prepare to harvest tissue from a tobacco plant Tuesday to extract evolved molecules made by a virus in the plant. (Brad Zweerink/The Reporter) Posted by Hello

Large Scale Defense

Grant helps firm devise way to combat biowarefare

By Barbara Smith/Business Writer

Scientists at a leading biotechnology company headquartered in Vacaville are busy working on biowarfare defense initiatives for the United States.

Large Scale Biology Corp. has received a $1 million federal grant from the Biowarfare Defense Research Program to expand the company's participation in national biowarfare defense. The funding will be used to develop more effective products for prevention and treatment of biowarfare-related illnesses.

On Aug. 5, President Bush signed legislation into law that funds key Department of Defense initiatives, including $1 million for the company to employ its proprietary GRAMMR (Genetic ReAssortment by MisMatch Resolution) DNA shuffling and molecular evolution technology to develop more effective biopharmaceuticals for protecting military personnel and civilians in biowarfare situations.

GRAMMR is Large Scale Biology's technology invented and developed in Vacaville, said Hal Padgett, principal investigator for the program.

"GRAMMR allows us to breed genes with one another in order to obtain new and novel biological activity," Padgett said. "We've gotten enthusiastic response from our military clients.

"The capabilities that GRAMMR presents allows them to do things they are currently unable to do."

Padgett said there are certain biological agents that are of concern to the Department of Defense, and Large Scale is providing materials for them to screen against those agents.

"We're not working with any of those agents in Vacaville," Padgett cautioned. "We're just providing materials for them to screen, and we ship those to the biodefense facilities in Fort Detrick."

Large Scale Biology is under contract with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick. Fort Detrick is the U.S. biodefense headquarters where there is the Level 4 containment facilities for viruses such as Ebola.

"We are evolving novel therapeutics to combat those agents," Padgett said. "We're doing this in our efforts to augment the native human immune system."

There are many biological agents the Department of Defense is interested in screening against, Padgett said.

"We take candidate genes, breed them together, and produce the proteins that correspond to these hybrid genes," he said. "We are evolving these genes for greater activity."

Padgett said biowarfare agents the Department of Defense would be concerned with include the Ebola virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, SARS, and Hantavirus, among others.

He said confidentiality prohibits him from specifying what Large Scale is addressing at this time.

Large Scale is contributing two of its core technologies to this program, including the Company's GRAMMR directed evolution technology and its plant-based biomanufacturing system, which can be used together to rapidly optimize and produce therapeutic proteins and vaccines.

"What we are doing with our GRAMMR technology in combination with our GENEWARE plant based manufacturing technology is something that other companies cannot approach, cannot do," Padgett said. "They really don't have the combination of the two - making the hybrid genes and producing the corresponding proteins - which is important. We have both sides of that equation.

"This is something we are uniquely positioned to do. That's not a stretch," he said.

Large Scale credits Congressman George Miller for his support and successful sponsorship to enable the company to make important contributions to national defense needs.

"Congressman Miller has put us in contact with the military researchers with the needs for our technologies, and he's made it possible for us to work with them to our mutual benefit," Padgett said.

Large Scale Biology is making an important contribution toward protecting America's armed forces in the battlefield, Miller said in a prepared statement.

"Biological warfare is an unfortunate but real threat and we must be prepared for it," he said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at

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