Roger Niello has long been one of the most recognizable figures in the Capital Region. During nearly four decades as a business leader and political representative — first on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and then in the California State Assembly — he developed a lasting reputation as a devout advocate for the state’s business community. Last November, that devotion led to Niello being named president and CEO of the Sacramento Metro Chamber. We sat down with him recently to talk about the city’s business and political climate and the Chamber’s collaborative Next Economy planning initiative.
Comstock’s: What should Chamber members expect from you as the leader of this organization?
Niello: Attention to the three primary missions of the chamber, with the first one being relevance to members. We are nothing if we don’t have the support of our members. Second, we need to be the voice of business in the region, and that also extends to the state and federal level. And then, it’s economic development. That’s an area I intend to emphasize even more as the economy rallies. I think we’re starting to see some real recognizable signs of recovery, but we need to be more involved in economic development on behalf of the region. An extremely important part of that is the Next Economy initiative. We’re looking at specific action items within the region that business support groups, … higher education institutions and community colleges and local governments need to work on. If we get to that action plan, I think we make a much more significant difference than we have with other collaborative efforts in the past.
Comstock’s: You mentioned the economy is starting to improve. What are your overall feelings of the Sacramento economy, where it’s at now and where it might go this year?
Niello: My crystal ball isn’t any clearer than anybody else’s, but I see things getting better. The drag now is real estate. Until we work through the price inflation and glut of inventory … the economy can’t really start booming. Other sectors of the economy can and are growing, but we need to work through this real estate dysfunction. But there’s a good thing there too: We had lost a bit of our competitive advantage here, relative to cost of living and doing business, and in a perverse fashion we’ve kind of fixed that again. So that coming back into line allows the economy to be on a more even keel relative to long-term trends. But there are signs that people are building, and there certainly is more retail activity. I think Roseville sales tax receipts were up close to 5 percent, and the county of Sacramento was up 4 percent. So that activity is increasing, and I would expect it to continue into 2012.
Comstock’s: What can and should the Metro Chamber be doing to help foster job creation in this region?
Niello: That’s part of the Next Economy. We’re at the beginning stage of focusing on four economic clusters that are the primary drivers of our economy, the part that truly creates wealth and jobs and which is the economic base. We’re going to convene working groups for each cluster and ask them, ‘what do you need to succeed and grow?’ We’ll do it through looking at their entire value chain and what we do and do not have here. For example, I think everybody here realizes we really don’t have an adequate existence of venture capital firms, particularly in the tech areas. One of my other big concerns is the perception of this area outside the region. Outside of our government sphere, we do have a truly entrepreneurial population. The problem is, if you ask somebody from Pennsylvania what they think about Sacramento, if they know anything, they’ll say it’s a government town. Phil Jackson used to call it Cow Town — and that doesn’t bother me because one of our economic drivers is agribusiness — but this notion of a government town precludes the perception of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Comstock’s: When we talk about things that improve the business environment, people usually start with regulation reform. But what other things are really important to you in this process that you’re talking about?
Niello: You’re right, we can’t just say, ‘without regulatory reform, there’s nothing we can do about the economy,’ because that’s not true. There are other aspects that are extremely important, too. Education is probably the most important. We need a robust community college system because that’s where the retraining happens. We need young graduates who are going to be trained and stay for opportunities here, and that’s where [Sacramento State and UC Davis] institutions come in. You need local governments that ease the development of those assets that a business needs. Permit processes, for instance, can take extremely long periods of time, particularly if the regional, established approach to development heavily advantages infill over greenfield development. I call it the business development ethic. Do we have an ethic here [within] our government that [makes] it a high priority for us to foster the development of the private sector, business end of our community? Is that a key driving strategy of our local governments? I’ll leave that as an open question, and each jurisdiction can answer it as they see fit. But business support groups like the Metro Chamber and community chambers need to tell local governments how they feel. That’s an important part of business success in a region also.
Comstock’s: You’ve been in local and state government. What is your take on the seemingly endless dysfunction at Sacramento’s City Hall and how it impacts all these things we’re talking about?
Niello: First of all, you’re talking specifically about the city of Sacramento. I think it’s important to acknowledge that within the six-county region, we have literally dozens of jurisdictions besides the city of Sacramento that aren’t so much in the news. Most of the local government we have here does seem to function pretty well. I think that’s more the rule in this region than the exception. But even though there are lots of other jurisdictions, there are concerns about the city of Sacramento. The large major urban center of a metropolitan area should be an important regional leader in the overall success of that region from a governing and political standpoint. That particular standpoint in our region is compromised because of the seeming inability of the Sacramento City Council to be truly collaborative. I’m avoiding using the word dysfunction, though a lot of people use that and maybe that’s what it is. I do think everybody would agree that the function of that city council does not appear to be toward some beneficial results from a policy perspective. It appears to be personality driven, and that compromises the city of Sacramento from being a regional leader with true regional collaboration and vision.
Comstock’s: What is your perspective on Mayor Johnson’s executive mayor proposal?
Niello: A city reaches a size and sophistication and complication at which it really can’t be governed like a small city. Sacramento is of the size, of the sophistication, of the complication, that a form of government that works for Citrus Heights isn’t going to work for Sacramento. Virtually every other big city in California, and probably in the nation, is governed with the elected executive and separate elected legislative body on the model of states. I think it’s high time Sacramento enter that realm of the big city that it really is. Kevin’s first proposal that he rolled out two years ago, I didn’t like that one. That was way too much power for the mayor. But he and the people he’s working with recognized that. I think the Chamber was part of those discussions to help move it in the direction where there’s a little bit more of a balance of powers, which there needs to be with an elected executive and a separate elected legislative body. I think the current proposal makes good sense. It will work better for the city of Sacramento. I personally favor it, but more importantly the Chamber, which represents a lot of the businesses in the city of Sacramento, also favors it.
Comstock’s: What’s your feeling about the arena? Do we have what it takes to get this thing done?
Niello: I don’t know. The parking proposal is very interesting and was creative, and it was a good thing to place into the discussion. The troubling thing is they can’t even move forward on trying to see if it will work. But an arts and entertainment facility in the middle of the urban core would have real value to the entire region. I’m not saying we should expect other areas to pay for it. Although, maybe if things had been different in the past relative to interaction between the various jurisdictions, that could be different. The point is, the value of that development is extremely positive; there’s no question about that in my mind. But can we get there? The simple answer is I don’t know.
No agency is safe. No office off limits. Boardrooms will be infiltrated. Communication barriers will crumble for the sake of collaboration. As the old guard inches toward that horizon called retirement, Sacramento’s young power players are taking center stage.
When Laurie Grimsman graduated in June from the Graduate School of Management at UC Davis, she was 51 and a self-proclaimed “age outlier.”