Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Jim Spering reflects on two decades of growth as mayor of Suisun City

December 5, 2006

Spering reflects on two decades as mayor of Suisun City

By Ian Thompson

Jim Spering stands in front of Suisun City Hall. When Spering took over as mayor in November 1986, city hall was but a trailer. (Gary Goldsmith/Daily Republic)

SUISUN CITY - Early in Jim Spering's career as Suisun City mayor, the San Francisco Chronicle declared Suisun City the worst town in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It was a kick in the ribs at a time when Spering and the City Council were starting a two-decade campaign to eliminate the blighted areas and economically revive the town.

And on the day before he handed over the job he held since 1986 to Pete Sanchez - Spering will assume his new role as Solano County Supervisor - Spering figured Suisun City would be no longer at the bottom.

"We would be somewhere in the middle," Spering said.

That is a conservative view of the impact the 20-year mayor had during an era that saw Highway 12 expand, the crime-ridden Crescent neighborhood razed and replaced by Victorian Harbor and the waterfront transformed from a backwater to a bustling marina and a mixed-use work-in-progress.

That downtown redevelopment effort that created the city's promenade, marina, waterfront businesses, harbor plaza and neighborhoods such as Victorian Harbor has been nationally recognized.

In his two decades as mayor, Spering saw tough fights over whether Suisun City should allow gambling boats in town and led a staunch defense of a strategy to fund multi-million redevelopment efforts by putting the entire town in a redevelopment district.

He stuck to his vision he spelled out often to critics and supporters alike.

"You make the decisions based on the community you represent," Spering said, "not just the people who come to the City Council meeting."

Critics such as former City Councilman John Rundlett, who doggedly fought Spering for much of his career, contended that the redevelopment strategy put the city in danger with a large redevelopment bond debt.

Spering caught a lot of flak from Rundlett, who passed away recently, and others who said the district stole future revenue from the general fund, which pays for all city services - from police to parks.

"There was going to be no money going to the general fund anyway," Spering said of what would happen if there was no redevelopment agency to bring in new development.

Spering replaced Art Marquez as mayor in 1986 at a time of turmoil for the council and the city, taking a job he had first refused to seek when friends urged him to run.

"I felt I could make a difference," Spering said of why he ran.

Since then, that "difference" was much greater than he expected; greater than that initial dream just to get a new police station and a city hall, which were finished in 1989.

One of the first challenges was dealing with problems with the city's water quality, which hit its low point when a city inspection of the water tank on Gregory Hill found a dead skunk floating in the water.

"We were struggling to get our citizens a clean water supply," Spering said.

That resulted in a joint powers agreement with the Solano Irrigation District that allowed the city to significantly improve its water quality and supply.

Suisun City leaders had always talked about redevelopment before Spering, but the effort never got off the ground.

"The only way to develop the waterfront was for the city to take the lead," Spering said.

Spering and the council came up with the money they needed by creating a city-wide redevelopment district and selling millions in bonds.

"It was a little risky," Spering said.

The redevelopment effort saw hits with ventures such as Bab's Delta Diner, the new marina, the Delta Landing live-work neighborhood and One Harbor Center open up.

But there were misses, too - with businesses such as a proposed hotel and The Buckhorn Restaurant, which failed to materialize.

The one development that Spering didn't anticipate was a lack of private businesses and landowners jumping in to develop land and open businesses after the city spent millions in improving the downtown's roads and infrastructure.

"It was a dynamic we thought never would happen," Spering said.

The economic revival is still going forward with the recent groundbreaking for a mixed-use commercial development on Main and Solano streets, plans to build houses on the old Crystal Middle School site and a new hotel deal now under negotiation.

"I felt that Suisun City had to carve out its niche in the marketplace and this waterfront is our niche we are carving out," Spering said.

Spering looks proudly at his work helping found and direct the Solano Transportation Authority.

The STA's work has included funding projects that has impacted Suisun City with supporting Capitol Corridor train service, improvements to roads in and around the town, and improving Walters Road as part of the Jepson Parkway plan.

Spering feels is leaves all this in good hands when he steps down.

"This is one of the better City Councils we have had in a long time," Spering said of those who will carry on running the city.

Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or at

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