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Bennett: A look back at Basin Street

Basin Street Properties mailed a public relations piece to the community in the past week or so, highlighting the company’s contributions to Petaluma, which include the Redwood Business Park at the north end of town and the Theatre District downtown.

One might wonder why the local firm went to the expense of preparing and mailing this piece. I have no inside information, but I have a pretty good idea. Basin Street has recently been under fire from a couple of directions. Their proposed Riverfront project’s environmental impact report was challenged by labor unions as being inadequate, which was a thinly veiled attempt to force the developer into hiring union labor only during construction.

Then Mayor David Glass and his council colleague Teresa Barrett opposed the project because the public ball field Basin Street was going to build and maintain did not have an all-weather surface, so they opposed the project that would, among other things, generate more than $7 million for the city for traffic relief. In the process, the mayor got a number of the soccer players and their families all stirred up, and while the object seemed to be to get them stirred up against the council majority, some of that anger spilled over to Basin Street, portayed as the typical “evil developer.”

All this was followed by the “image” mailer. It was a pleasant enough piece, but in this opinion, it didn’t go far enough. The fact is, Basin Street’s impact on this community, in positive ways, has been greater than any other single factor since the perfection of the chicken and egg incubator here in the 19th century.

In 1984, Basin Street, then under the name of G&W Management, built its first office building on North McDowell Boulevard, a move that was to usher in the heady days of Telecom Valley.

To appreciate the difference between now and 1984, we have to consider that this was a town with few jobs that paid much money, and there were few of the amenities that one finds in towns with good disposable income, such as fine restaurants. Instead we had fast food, some cafes and maybe a couple or three restaurants of quality. Our downtown was struggling for survival, and Petaluma Boulevard between Western Avenue and Washington Street was dotted with second hand stores.

Until then, our business parks along North McDowell were more about warehouses than jobs. Ten years ago I wrote a cover story for North Bay Business Journal about the development of the Sonoma County economy. In the process, I interviewed Bill White, the CEO-retired of Basin Street. Then known as the “Father of Telecom Valley” for his innovative efforts in fostering a countywide telecom industry, he related how tough it was to get started.

“My problem was that I was trying to do something different, and a lot of people told me I was going to go broke. In fact, one member of the Petaluma Site Plan and Architectural Review Committee said as much. I figured that was my concern,” White told me.

What the naysayers didn’t realize, but White knew, was that the growth would not come from existing local businesses, who could not afford business park rental rates, but from businesses White would recruit from the Bay Area.

Convincing banks was a problem. “I was turned down for a loan by 35 banks,” White told me. The 36th, a bank in San Jose, finally said yes.

White’s approach was to provide great incentives to fledgling businesses, such as Optilink, and Advanced Fibre Communications, until they were established. A little known fact outside the company is that one of the non-tech companies he helped get started was Murphy’s Pizza, now known as Papa Murphy’s, one of the leading and best regarded take ‘n’ bake businesses in the nation.

Then, on the second floor of White’s first office building, two men worked in a small office with little furniture to open the first Murphy’s Pizza in Petaluma at the Golden Eagle shopping center downtown.

White showed the way, and extensive business park development south of town along Lakeville soon developed. A sleepy bedroom community soon became a vibrant town with more than commuters.

Basin Street has changed this town in many ways, almost always for the better.

(Don Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His email address is dcbenn@aol.com.)

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