The City of Lancaster, California Is Serious About OZ Development

Chenin Dow

The Opportunity Zone Expo Podcast
The City of Lancaster, California Is Serious About OZ Development


Jack: Welcome back everyone to the OZExpo Podcast. I'm your host Jack Heald and joining me today is Chenin Dow, who is the assistant to the city manager for the City of Lancaster, California.

Chenin: Thank you, Jack.

Jack: Tell us just a little bit about the city of Lancaster, where you are so folks can mentally place this on a map. I know, I had to look it up myself.

Chenin: Absolutely. We are located in the high desert about an hour north of downtown Los Angeles in southern California.

Jack: Alright. And how long have you been with the city?

Chenin: I've been here for 11 years.

Jack: It looked to me like you actually started as an intern with the city. Is that right?

Chenin: Yes, I did. I started as a college student here. I'm interning for the summer in my hometown and worked my way up from there.

Jack: So, my assumption is, you know the ins-and-outs of Lancaster City Government pretty well.

Chenin: I'd like to think so.

Jack: Now it's funny as we're talking, I realized when I started doing my research, I don't really know what a city manager's job actually is. I assume it's kind of the business of the city, but I don't know that for a fact. Talk to us about the city manager, your role as the assistant to the city manager first and then we'll dive deeper into the Opportunity Zone stuff.

Chenin: Absolutely. The City Manager is equivalent to a CEO role in the private sector, so he's responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization. All of those kind of high-level executive decisions that get made. So as the assistant to that here in Lancaster, we've structured it so that in my division we oversee economic development, our innovative and entrepreneurial efforts including Lancaster Choice Energy, which is our community choice aggregator as well as our smart city initiatives.

Jack: Okay. Let's check into those two things. The Lancaster… what was that you said about energy?

Chenin: Lancaster Choice Energy.

Jack: Lancaster Choice Energy.

Chenin: Yes. That's our local utility. And that's a community choice aggregator, which enables us to work with southern California Edison, which is the local investor-owned utility and they provide the transmission and distribution while Lancaster Choice Energy actually provides the physical electrons. So anything you see visually that still see the [MT1] electricity itself comes from Lancaster. And that helped enable us to reach our Mayor Parris's net zero goals for the city of Lancaster and help us to combat climate change.

Jack: Okay. What does that mean? That zeros, yeah. Carbon. Is that what that is?

Chenin: Yes. We're looking to produce as much electricity here in the City of Lancaster and the region as we consume. And through the CCA through Lancaster Choice Energy, we're able to procure energy from local providers, local solar companies as well as wind, as well as contracting with other renewable power plants and we're able to move forward towards our renewable energy goals.

Jack: Very cool. And you also mentioned other portions of economic development.

Chenin: Absolutely. We handle a traditional economic development here in our division. And so business attraction and retention, job creation, all of that, including Opportunity Zones, and we have also encompassed smart city initiatives because we see that as another kind of emerging frontier in economic development. We understand that kind of electricity is our future, which is the one reason that's part of the economic development umbrella as well as incorporating things like fiber and all of the many things that a resident would need in the 21st century and beyond. So we're looking to build our city up and set ourselves up for future growth.

Jack: What's the smart city initiative looking like in terms of the actual application of technology?

Chenin: We have a number of different initiatives that we're pursuing. One that is in progress now, we have collaborated with a company called Landmark to help densify our wireless networks as well as create battery storage and some other amenities for our parks. And those are being deployed as we speak. We're upgrading our electric vehicle infrastructure that's also in collaboration with Lancaster Choice Energy. And we also have an innovative partnership with IBM.

You may recall several years back, the Watson robot that on Jeopardy that defeated Ken Jennings and some of the other stars, and we're using that same artificial intelligence technology to crunch data and help us enable us to see things in a different way. So it enables us to do predictive analytics that help us identify trends and things that we wouldn't be able to see manually and help deploy resources more efficiently.

Jack: What kind of data are you throwing at that you're getting predictive analytics from?

Chenin: More and more every day, but I would say one of the first ones has been with public safety. We have taken our crime data and that has helped enable us to identify if we have a certain trend of a certain crime or a certain geographic area or a certain day of the week. And that helps us enable us to deploy our law enforcement officers to that in a preventative effort.

Jack: Opportunity Zones. I actually haven't talked to anyone in your position. So, you know right there at the business nexus of city and the Opportunity Zones. And I've really been looking forward to this particular conversation. Talk to an awful lot of people on private side, a couple of people on the public side, but not really at the ground level. So, let's talk about Opportunity Zones and the city of Lancaster. Give us the story.

Chenin: Yeah. So we work with the state of California to identify our Opportunity Zones and we aligned them with preexisting project areas that we're focusing our energies on. So one thing we've identified from a business model standpoint for the city is that higher densities and infill development are really creating a greater return on investment for the city itself as well as our citizens. So were looking to . . .

Jack:      I hope folks recognize that. I mean that's, is kind of simple and obvious in retrospect, but yeah.

Chenin: Yeah, so many cities that grew, we were incorporated in 1977 and so many cities across the country that grew up around the same time, we did have that urban sprawl problem where, you know, there's hopscotch development or there were until opportunities that were left vacant throughout our growth. And we're finding that's really a negative, not just visually to the city, but that now we have infrastructure that, you know, supplying an empty lot. So we're looking to densify that and really, again, help improve our business case so that we can create a greater return for our residents. Opportunities include looking at some of our more traditional suburban developments, strip centers and looking to place pads there in parking lots that are underutilized. Another thing we've done is eliminating our commercial parking requirements. Rather than having a planner arbitrarily choose a number based on assumptions, we're letting the private sector decide, okay, this is what number of spaces I need to make my business work. And so that's created new opportunities for development.

Jack: Really?

Chenin: And with all of this. Yeah. So we've had great success.

Jack: I would bet you have. Okay.

Chenin: It's our, our partners in the private sectors or seem to like that the, the ability to make that choice on their own.

Jack: Well, sure.

Chenin: Greater Return. Sorry, go ahead.

Jack: Any surprises. Have you seen any surprises come from that?

Chenin: I wouldn't say surprises. I would say kind of people in the private sector are surprised by the fact that we don't have a minimum anymore. Those were eliminated a couple of years back and I'd say it creates such a significantly greater return for the property they own both for them and for us, as far as the property and sales tax go, that it's just a win-win around. So that's been a great step in the right direction.

So, with all of this we're looking at, we've identified three major project areas that we've been working on. One is our downtown area, we also have our medical main street healthcare districts as well as a parkway village, which is focused on housing and an urban district. One of the key growth components of the Lancaster economy is the aerospace sector, we’re the home to Plant 42 and they're actually building the new bomber for the air force, which is about $100 billion contract, right here in the Antelope Valley.

Jack: Oh really?

Chenin: So, with that comes thousands of new engineering jobs. We are seeing more growth and seeing higher demand for not just housing, but different types of housing. As a suburban city, we've traditionally been very heavy on single-family development. That's about 70% of our housing stock. And what we're finding in surveys with the companies that are growing here is especially their younger talent as well as empty nesters don't want that 3,500-square-foot single family home. They want to see duplexes and multifamily and condos and town homes and all of those other opportunities. So that's what we're after with our Opportunity Zones are very aggressively pursuing those opportunities.

Jack: And what does that pursuit look like? How do you go about pursuing those opportunities?

Chenin: One of the first things we've done is delineating those areas and working to direct development interest to them. We are also in the process of creating specific plan overlays over two of those three deals that don't already have one. So that will lay the groundwork for development anywhere we're doing the EIR. So that will significantly speed development as well as getting all of the zoning correct. So it will essentially create shovel ready sites. We're also making some investments. Go ahead.

Jack: What is EIR?

Chenin: Oh, environmental impact report.

Jack: Okay thank you.

Chenin: That is a California-unique, thing I believe. I know other states have similar requirements that are a little different, so that helps speed development and that can add time to the development time-frame. So, having all of that work done upfront, helps the developer be ready to go as soon as the market is ready for them.

Jack: What's the long-term vision for the city? How do you see the growth happening? And I'm talking not so much in terms of the physical growth as the types of economic development that are occurring.

Chenin: Well, definitely the higher density types of development. We'd like to see better use of the land that we have today as opposed to the more suburban model of development. So we're aggressively pursuing those. We have also seen a surge in, not only aerospace, but the sectors that support it, of course. We're seeing companies grow with that as well as advanced transportation sector. We're the home of BYD, which is the first Chinese automotive manufacturing company to locate in the United States.

Jack: Oh.

Chenin: And they have, yes. So they are actually helping Antelope Valley Transit Authority, our local transit agency, become the first all-electric bus fleet in the nation.

Jack: I was going to ask you, is it an electric vehicle? Yes.

Chenin: Yes. So, and here in their manufacturing plant here would, they have about 800 employees and they focus on the manufacture of electric buses.

Jack: Where else are we, can we see those electric buses? Are they, are they being shipped all over the country right now? Is it how, how, far along are they?

Chenin: Yes, they are. They're pretty far along. I've seen probably about a dozen states I've seen deals with. I know they're using them at UC Berkeley, at some locations in Hawaii, obviously here in Lancaster. So they've got all kinds of contracts that are working and they have metro agencies coming regularly to see the buses be produced in person.

Jack: What are the things you're doing to clear the ground, so to speak, for developers. Is there rezoning that has to happen? Are you doing things to cut the red tape? These guys can make these things happen faster.

Chenin: Absolutely. That's the zoning as part of a specific plan process. So what we're doing with that is creating a zoning framework that furthers our vision for these areas. I'm with, again, higher densities, shopping and dining, housing integrated, but also it's flexible enough that we're not relying on our assumptions for, you know, five- to 10- to 20-years from now to dictate the future development. So this will allow for us to, when there's positive growth happening in that area, to go quickly to the development phase as opposed to getting tied up in red tape. We also expedited projects that are desired within these project areas.

Jack: Yeah sure.

Chenin: We had an 88,000-square-foot industrial client that was completed within nine months in our Lancaster business park. And that's following a similar model of having that specific plan in place.

Jack: Was that from the first shovel in the ground or was that from filing for the permit?

Chenin: With all permitting, it was still under a year.

Jack: How does that compare to similar cities that you guys, similar cities of your size that you communicate with around the state, around the country?

Chenin: Well for example, we've been told that, to do an EIR in, in a city within Los Angeles County can often take two-and-a-half years.

Jack: Right.

Chenin: That's the EIR component of that, so to go from I'm filing the construction with you, less than half that time is quite quick, and we do pride ourselves on that. We see ourselves as a partner with the private sector to make things happen.

Jack: Is this something that the city, the citizens of Lancaster are aware of? Do you promote it that this is the Opportunity Zone kind of development? Is it something that the public is actually aware of or is this primarily on the development and finance side that people know about it right now?

Chenin: Yeah, I would say it particularly with the two project areas that are further along, which include our downtown as well as the medical main street. The public is generally aware of them. The third area that's kind of just emerging in response to housing needs is more recent. The public is not largely aware of that one yet, but we've just begun that process.

Jack: Talk about some of the very common government types of challenges that you face with the Opportunity Zone administration that those of us in the private sector and never think about. And I'm guessing public relations, all the different stakeholders that don't actually have any monetary or, or living influence in it, but just those kinds of things.

Chenin: Yeah. Well, I would say one of our biggest obstacles really is, is just that same mentality you just mentioned of kind of overcoming that assumption in the private sector that it will be difficult to deal with the government. Because our goal in life is to make that the easiest and smoothest process possible. When we have a priority, client priority business that is coming to Lancaster, our goal is that the city is waiting on them, not the other way around. So, we've definitely been able to achieve that with a number of our industrial clients recently, including BYD. So we seek to partner with them and really make sure that we are living up to our highest expectations and their highest expectations to ensure that they can get open. And operating as quickly as possible and, making money as quickly as possible.

Jack: Well, you realize that really is,unique. That's unusual. Why is Lancaster like that? What is it about how you guys run the city that allows you to be that way? Because that's not normal.

Chenin: I think we can credit that 100% to our city council. We have a five-member city council and all of them are a dedicated business people that know what it's like to run a business and know what it's like to be on the other side of the counter. And they made it a priority from the top down that we understand that as staff, that business is important to the city and we need to work with them and become partners to make sure that their needs are met as well as the city.

Jack: What's one of the more interesting challenges that you've run into in your role there with the city manager?

Chenin: Well, I'm new to this current role I have just a few months in. But I would say we are a very innovative city, so we're not afraid to take risks. We are not afraid to be entrepreneurial. Some of the examples of technologies that we're adopting and energy that we're doing. It's a constant learning process. So it's a very exciting role. We're able to do a lot of new things that are creating a positive return for the city.

Jack: So, what is about Lancaster that has kept you right there in the city government for so long?

Chenin: You know, I think it's a personal passion for me. It's my hometown and I really care about what happens here. I want to make it a better place for my family and for the residents of the area and I'm just proud to be a part of our mission.

Jack: How long did it take to land the BYD contract?

Chenin: Yeah, let's see. I believe our first delegation visit it was in 2010, and Mayor Parris had met with the L.A. County Supervisor at the time, a few months prior to that. And then they opened their doors here in Lancaster in 2013 so we were very excited to have them and they've been an incredible part of our business community since.

Jack: How many jobs did you say? 800 jobs?

Chenin: Yes. And they have plans to roughly double that.

Jack: Um, do they, do you know if they are doing anything other than buses? Are they going to make consumer vehicles?

Chenin: Yes, in fact they are, so they actually produce consumer vehicles in China now, but they're diversifying their product line here in the U.S. with delivery trucks and port vehicles. So other heavy-duty vehicles of that nature. They are also looking to do a what they call the BYD Skyrail, which is very similar to the monorail system that you might be familiar with at Disneyland. And they're looking to supply that potentially as part of the transportation solution for the 2028 Olympics for Los Angeles.

Jack: I love to ask all my guests this question. This is where we get to find that a little bit about the person rather than the job. You get to step outside your role as a in the city manager's office and you're now going to get to be queen of the world for a day. Imagine yourself queen of the world for a day. That's the, that's the power. You have, and in that role, you get to solve one problem and one problem only. What problem are you going to solve with your tremendous power?

Chenin: I would say domestic violence. I don't think any child or women or others should ever have to go home afraid. The home should be a sacred place where you're comfortable and safe and I would love to make the whole world reflect that.

Jack: See that's why I love asking questions like this. That's good stuff. Thank you. Now I have another question that, that's probably a little weird. Tell me about your name. Chenin. C. H. E. N. I. N. I've never, never seen or heard that name until I met you.

Chenin: Yes, you have. My father told my mother on their third date that he was going to name his daughter that and it's actually the name of a wine, Chenin Blanc.

Jack: Oh, Chenin Blanc. Wow. I've never seen it in the context of a person's name. How's that?

Chenin: Yes. I apologize. I said, few have.

Jack: So, you're named after a wine?

Chenin: I am.

Jack: I don't think I've ever met anyone who was named after a wine.

Chenin: I think I had a tennis partner in high school named Chablis.

Jack: Get out of town.

Chenin: No.

Jack: That's just bizarre. This is a weird world. You know, when I hear things like that, it really, it really does make me think that we might be living in a simulation and the programmers every now and then just drop us little clues to let us know. This is not really. All right. Well Chenin, any last words for us, particularly about Opportunity Zone development in the city of Lancaster, California.

Chenin: Yeah. I would say, the opportunities really are endless. We've got 4,000 acres of Opportunity Zone here and a city government that ready and willing to, to partner with the private sector to make things happen.

Jack: How do folks get a hold of the City of Lancaster to talk about this? What's the best way to do that?

Chenin: They can give us a call here in economic development at (661) 723-6128 or they can visit our website at

Jack: Very good and I will remind our listeners that that's that that information will be available online on the podcast website if you need to get it. Well, Chenin, I appreciate you being here with us for Chenin Dow at the city of Lancaster, California. I am Jack Heald with OZExpo Podcast. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for listening. Don't forget to press that subscribe button and we will talk to you next time.

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