Jerry Vorpahl, executive director and CEO, Power Inn Alliance

Jerry Vorpahl, executive director and CEO, Power Inn Alliance

Industrious Revolution

Sacramento's engine room transforms into a center for innovation

Back Article Aug 1, 2010 By Bill Romanelli

Transforming the Power Inn area bears a striking resemblance to the way an ancient lake transforms into a meadow. It takes a lot of infill, it happens over decades and the result can be a jewel that brings new vitality to the landscape.

The Power Inn area is six square miles and one of the largest industrial areas in California, boasting nearly 2,000 businesses. It’s a triangle bordered by the Union Pacific Railroad line and Power Inn Road to the west, Florin-Perkins Road to the east, Folsom Boulevard and Jackson Road to the north, and Elder Creek Road to the south.

Its roots are in the gold rush era, where Folsom Boulevard served as the main thoroughfare to gold mines. It was home to a pony express stop, which was later purchased and converted into a popular roadhouse called Basso’s Place. When Great Western Power Co. built a substation across the street from Basso’s Place in 1908, the roadhouse earned a new moniker: the Power Inn.

Through the late 1800s and early 1900s the surrounding area was lush with vineyards, hops fields, produce and dairy farms. By the end of World War II and into the 1950s it became an ideal place for heavy industrial operations, both because of its rich sand and gravel deposits as well as a central location for manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. It became Sacramento’s engine room but made little progress as a business district. Even in the early 1990s there was no unified voice for businesses and no cooperative effort to shape the area’s future.

It was going to take leadership to change all that, and the Power Inn triangle got two: then-councilman Darrell Steinberg and local businessman Dain Domich.

“We recognized the importance of this area and that it had several transportation challenges,” says Domich, a partner with developer Separovich-Domich and board member of what is today called the Power Inn Alliance. “Our first goal was to set up a transportation management association to mitigate those challenges.”

A $15,000 grant from Caltrans helped fund the feasibility studies, which suggested a transportation management association was viable for the area. From there an additional grant from Caltrans, matched by local entrepreneurs, led to the launch of the Power Inn Transportation Management Association.

“Our main purpose was to create an advocacy voice for what was then a somewhat nondescript area that was often lost in the shuffle of transportation planning,” says Wendy Hoyt, who conducted the feasibility studies, recruited the association’s original board and served as its executive director for nine years.

Much of what the group focused on — and still focuses on today — can be boiled down to two words: accessibility and connectivity. As an old agricultural and mining area it was plagued with unconnected dead-end roads, limited access points and a lack of options for getting people out of their cars. There was a light-rail station at Folsom Boulevard and 65th Street for example, but no complementing bus service to get riders from the station to jobs along Power Inn Road.

The association lobbied aggressively for and won a new bus route, Route 8. It was an early and substantial success. (It’s also the reason the organization’s phone number ends in 8888.) Still, the group needed to stay ahead of the curve in terms of increasing population and economic development and the resulting increases in traffic. It would be difficult to attract businesses to the area if transportation challenges were an impediment to mobility. At the same time, attracting more businesses to the area would only exacerbate its traffic and transportation problem.

“We had to keep the area from choking on its own success,” Hoyt says. “That meant creating even more options for people to ride their bikes to work, carpool and take mass transit.”

At the same time, the organization became as much of an advocate for the business interests in the area as for enhancing transportation within it. It changed its name from the Power Inn Transportation Management Association to the Power Inn Transportation and Business Association and continued surviving on sponsorships, memberships and Adopt-A-Road programs until a 2007 vote transformed the organization into a Property-Based Improvement District.

With that change, in which businesses in the district voted to assess a self-imposed annual tax to pay for the organization’s programs, a stable revenue source was established and the organization changed its name again, to the Power Inn Alliance.

In the ensuing years the group, like the area, has continued to evolve. Transportation and advocacy remain key focuses of its work; Caltrans recently eliminated bus route 8 because of its budget, for example, and the Power Inn Alliance is repeating history in an effort to reverse that decision. In addition, the group has four other core areas: planning and zoning oversight, security and crime abatement, economic development and beautification.

“You’re not going to find a better combination of economic incentives or affordable land and buildings this close to the Capitol of the world’s eighth-largest economy.”

Jerry Vorphal,executive director and CEO, Power Inn Alliance

That’s a big load for a bunch of business owners, volunteer board members and a paid staff of four.

“There’s a lot of pride in this area. The people who work here think it’s the greatest thing ever,” says Jerry Vorpahl, executive director and CEO of the Power Inn Alliance. “They invest a lot of their time and resources to make this part of the city better.”

That’s evident in the many successes the group has achieved in the past three years. Among the more notable was attracting the Sacramento Area Technology Alliance to relocate to the area, creating an incubator for new technology companies that can tap into the proximity of Sacramento State and UC Davis. And, while the organization may still be new to the economic development business, the fact that Nestle Waters North America chose to plant roots in the Power Inn area speaks to the organization’s potential.

The area holds California Enterprise Zone, Recycling Market Development Zone and CleanTech Zone designations, with all the accompanying tax benefits. Land is still relatively cheap, and the infrastructure is already in place.

“You’re not going to find a better combination of economic incentives or affordable land and buildings this close to the Capitol of the world’s eighth-â?¨largest economy,” Vorpahl says.

Successes aside, the Power Inn Alliance’s attention is on the future. The arrival of SARTA, for example, is one step toward what many leaders hope will become a Sacramento technology hub, on par with what developed in Silicon Valley 30 years ago.

“One of our major goals is to see the land out here put to the highest and best use,” Domich says. “We’ve got 4 million square feet of unimproved space, fully served by infrastructure, and yet it’s some of the most underutilized and underdeveloped space in the region.”

The city of Sacramento would appear to agree. It recently designated the Power Inn area as one of five priority development areas.

In recognition and response, the Power Inn Vision Task Force was created to dive deeper into the subject of redevelopment, among others. Its subsequent report, “Guiding Principles Going Forward” charts a course for how the Power Inn Alliance can achieve its vision to create a fully integrated, mixed-use development zone, which capitalizes on its location and other assets.

Most notable is the vision to create an Innovation and Technology Village in the triangle’s northwest corner.

“What we envision is a campus-like environment that houses a variety of two- and three-story employment centers with light manufacturing and [research and development],” Vorpahl says. “Given our proximity to major universities and SARTA, we can attract a lot of solar, biotech and other cutting edge technology companies”

Domich agrees, emphasizing that he also sees benefits for the universities, especially Sacramento State.

“[Sacramento State] is landlocked. This is a great opportunity for the university to explode outward,” he says. “This also can provide internship and work opportunities for its students and graduates, enhancing its own offerings and making it more competitive.”

Before the Power Inn Alliance can go much further on the idea, however, it still needs to get a specific plan through the city. Unfortunately, Vorpahl says the city has put the specific plan “on ice” for at least the next six months. In the meantime, the outreach to tech companies continues.

“This is the place for innovators,” Vorpahl says. “Take Trong Nguyen, who’s spawned several innovations in the restaurant industry and is now involved in a venture to make hardwood flooring out of recycled wood products. Or Buzz Oates, who pioneered the concept of the tilt-up warehouse building in the area. An innovative streak is what the entrepreneurs out here all have in common.”

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