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California Forever promises new Solano County investments, pushback to proposed city grows

California Forever make new pitch to build up work force for planned new Solano city
California Forever make new pitch to build up work force for planned new Solano city 05:38

SOLANO COUNTY — Tech billionaires have made national headlines this year for their push to build a new city on Solano County farmland that sits about 20 minutes outside Fairfield and just over an hour from San Francisco. 

California Forever, the company behind the plan, needs support from local voters to rezone 17,500 acres of farmland they own from its current agricultural purpose to urban use. 

The initiative called the "East Solano Plan" is expected to come before county voters on the ballot in the November general election.

In local headlines this month, California Forever has continued to announce new commitments to the Solano County community. 

On Wednesday, the company announced it will invest $140,000 in local workforce development for higher-skilled job training this summer. 

The week before, it announced $500,000 in funding granted to 45 different Solano County nonprofits; and the week before that, California Forever announced the first 12 employers they say are interested in bringing new jobs to the new development, should the ballot measure pass. 

"There's no reason to think that this is the end of the agricultural legacy of Solano County. We want to continue it far into the future," said Justin Esch, vice president of business development for California Forever.

I sat down with Esch to unpack the recent announcements and how the group is combatting growing opposition to its plan.

Investing in Solano

California Forever leaders cite data that shows average Solano County household incomes are 30% lower than other San Francisco Bay Area counties.

"It's about educating different employers that this is part of the Bay Area. This is where development belongs. For all the reasons people who are from here know, this is where it should happen. I think telling that story is about, how do we create this amazing economic engine and make Solano County really the economic center of the next 100 years of the state of California?" Esch said. 

California Forever said it wants to build a walkable, affordable community that will be home to up to 400,000 residents and, if things go their way, a host of new employers at the development.

In mid-May, it announced 12 employers that range in industries from technology to manufacturing, to agriculture, that have said they would be interested in expanding their operations to California Forever's new city one day. 

"All of these employers are interested in moving jobs and opportunity to Solano County when that is possible. We need to get approval to build the city before you can start talking about building a factory," Esch said. 

"Is there going to be some type of an incentive or push for them to hire Solano residents?" I asked.

"These companies are creating new jobs in a new place. They are not moving the jobs. It is two different things. They will need to hire new employees. I'd like to think as many of them as possible will come from Solano County," Esch responded. 

That's where Wednesday's workforce development announcement comes into the picture. 

"You can't just bring a bunch of employers, plop them down and say, 'Everyone apply.' You need to make sure that people have the skills needed for the jobs for the economic opportunity that exists," Esch said. 

California Forever announced a pilot partnership with Merit America to provide online, high-skilled job training in IT and data analytics to a cohort of Solano County residents this summer.

That includes a $140,000 grant that will cover the majority of the cost for about 20 locals to take the training this summer.

Related: Learn more about the job training and how you can apply here

"We want to provide people economic opportunity today. We are not here just to promote California Forever and the city we want to build. It doesn't work unless all of Solano rises together," Esch said. 

"Some people will say these are efforts to buy someone's vote. How would you respond to that?" I asked. 

"It's not anything other than just trying to help the community, invest in the community," responded Esch. 

"Is there any type of commitment they have to sign on for?" I asked.  

"No. There's no obligations. There's no strings attached here," Esch said. 

California Forever also recently donated $500,000 to 45 Solano County nonprofits, which includes the area food bank, local arts initiatives, athletic programming and more. 

Esch said that too is an effort to support the local community they want to be a part of.

"California Forever is a company. We are a company based in Solano County and we are trying to support local initiatives in Solano County whether they be charitable or workplace development," Esch said.

A mayor's response

Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy will be the first to tell you that Solano County needs all of the economic opportunity, workforce development and nonprofit funding it can get. 

She will also be the first to tell you she doesn't support California Forever and doesn't think their money donated to the community is in good faith.

"You come here and you have third and fourth-generation farmers out there getting sued by them. That's not a good way to start," Moy said. 

The company told CBS13 Tuesday it now owns 60,000 acres of Solano County farmland. Silicon Valley investors first started buying up the land in secret back in 2018, eventually announcing its intended purpose to build a new city there.

The billionaires backing it include Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn; Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the Emerson Collective and Steve Jobs' widow; and Marc Andreessen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. 

Jan Sramek, former Goldman Sachs trader, is now the founder and CEO of California Forever. He and the other investors have spent an estimated $800-$900 million dollars buying up Solano farmland over the course of six years. 

The ballot measure, if passed in November, would rezone 17,500 acres for the proposed new city from agricultural land to urban use, giving the project the green light.

"I believe there is a healthy majority here who oppose that, oppose them, oppose what they've done and the way they've gone about it," Moy said. "I think they are shocked because where they come from, you don't get pushback down in Silicon Valley. When you are doing that work there isn't a lot of controversy around it, really. They do things in secret. They move fast. They break things."

I asked Moy how she feels about California Forever's recent community investments. She calls them all politics.

"You want to have people like you and feel good about you. They are behind the eight ball on this. So what do they do? What do they have that a lot of us don't have in the amount they have? Money. They're gonna spend it, give it, put it out and hope that translates into people voting," Moy said.

Moy, countering an argument she has heard from California Forever leaders, said Solano is not resistant to change.

"They don't know what they are talking about change. We are not sitting around on hay bales flossing our teeth with straw. They don't know who they are talking to. Farmers here use tractors now that level with lasers. It's different than what their grandpas did. We change a lot here," Moy said. "Right now. we have about 2,000 houses being built around Fairfield. It's an ongoing thing, same thing with Vacaville and Dixon. We are changing every day. We don't need people to parachute in. We don't need them to come here and fix it. We are working on it. All the cities, we mayors, work together every week. That's how we do it here."

Moy said there is space now in Solano County for the employers who expressed interest in expanding to California Forever's new city.

"Our economic people are calling them already and saying, 'Come here right now. You don't have to wait for infrastructure. We have places here for you to do this,' " Moy said.

Grassroots opposition

It's no secret the Solano County community has not exactly cozied up to California Forever.

Data from a poll released in April shows that 70% of Solano County residents reject the plan and would vote no on it today.

Residents at community meetings hosted by California Forever in December did not hold back their frustration.

One Facebook group opposing the plan also has more than 1,500 members, many who post updates daily.

"I'm not against growth, development, anything like that. What I'm against is the lack of transparency," said Michelle Trippi, one of the area's most active residents against California Forever.

She and neighbor Steve Ferreria have helped organize opposition and even created merchandise like t-shirts and yard signs for locals to purchase that read "Solano says no."

They said they've sold 500-yard signs so far this month and were out distributing hundreds of them on Tuesday in Fairfield.

"The demand for them was so high we have another order going in on May 31," Trippi said.

Becky Cecena of Vacaville came to pick up her signs. 

"I'm going to put two of these, the big ones, in our front yard, one on each side," Cecena said. 

"If you could sum up why you're against California Forever, what would the reason be?" I asked.

"My number one reason is water," Cecena answered. 

Ferreria, when posed the same question, answered, "Their continual lie from the start. The way they went about buying the land. The final straw for me was the way they gathered the signatures. They're just dishonest all the way around."

CBS13 first reported in March that California Forever's campaign was being accused by residents and the county of deceitfully gathering signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot.

Ferreria says the recent announcement of California Forever's investments in local nonprofits and the area workforce are efforts to make up for bad press.

"I perceive it as he is trying to buy votes. It's as simple as that," Ferreria said. "It's just publicity stunts to make them look good." 

While sitting down with Esch, I brought up this community opposition. 

"How do you change that narrative about California Forever coming from your perspective?" I asked.

"I think it's important to listen to everybody and hear what their concerns are, to have a productive dialogue. It's important to hear what they have to say. Where, and if possible, change things to reflect what's best for the county, but in a respectful way," Esch said.

I pointed out that the comment sections on the campaign's social media posts are largely turned off, preventing engagement in that space. 

Esch said they want to hear from voters and local residents about their genuine concerns through their website and that they do respond.

A second Silicon Valley?

The push that's backed by Silicon Valley investors could one day look a bit like Silicon Valley in the quiet agricultural community of Solano County.

"Due to the lack of areas they can expand currently in Silicon Valley, they move to Texas, Arizona and Florida. What we want to do is stop that from happening. We think Solano County is perfectly situated," Esch said.

Silicon Valley is less than a two-hour drive from the proposed new city and is home to global technology companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.

"There isn't a place to keep growing, there isn't a place to do these things. We think Solano County can be that place. As a result, it will create a massive economic engine in Solano County, in the Bay Area and for the State of California," Esch said.

"So is the vision that this could be a new, different type of Silicon Valley?" I asked.

"Why does Silicon Valley have to end between San Francisco and San Jose? What we see here is an opportunity that extends from Sacramento to San Jose. It's about lifting the entire Northern California mega-region. It's not us and them. It's we," Esch said. 


The East Solano Plan includes 10 guarantees that the campaign calls "legally binding" should the measure pass in November. They say they cannot build unless each of these promises are kept:

1. Jobs guarantee: "We will bring 15,000 new jobs to the community that pay at least 125% of the average wage in Solano County. The community won't be able to grow beyond 50,000 residents until we've fulfilled that commitment."

2. Homes for all: "We will provide $400 million in community benefits funding to help Solano County residents buy homes in the new community, and to build more affordable homes. If $300 million is allocated to down payment assistance, that would help 6,000 Solano families with $50,000 each."

3. Solano Scholarships: "To ensure Solano County residents can take advantage of new jobs created by the new community, we will provide $70 million in community benefits funding to help Solano residents pay for college, vocational training, or to start or expand a small business."

This $70 million in funding is separate from and in addition to the $140,000 California Forever is spending on job training this summer.

4. Green Solano: "We are providing $30 million in community benefits funding for protecting open space and natural habitats, improving public parks and trails, and supporting Solano's agriculture economy, including family farms and agricultural workers. We are excited to work with the Solano community to help identify priorities for this funding, to nurture our county's strong connection to its lands."

5. Solano Downtowns: "In addition to the $500 million in community benefit funding, we'll guarantee to invest $200 million in renovating or building homes, offices, shops, and other mixed-use buildings in downtown areas of Benicia, Dixon, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Suisun City, Vacaville, and Vallejo. Through this guarantee, we'll become a part of invigorating buildings & businesses in the many wonderful downtowns of Solano cities."

6. Smart growth guarantee: "Our initial commitments are to provide $500 million in community benefits funding and $200 million for investments in Solano Downtowns over the build-out towards 50,000 residents. But our commitment to Solano does not end there. If the new community grows beyond 50,000 residents, all of these financial commitments will continue to scale up in proportion to the growth of the new community. We are excited to grow with Solano, and be a good neighbor for generations to come."

7. Water guarantee: "Before the first brick is laid, we guarantee to prove water availability through the highly regulated, state-mandated process of Water Supply Assessment and Water Supply Verification. This process is regulated by the state, and requires us to prove that we have actual water we can deliver to households and employers in the new community, for many decades going forward, including during drought periods."

8. Transportation guarantee: "We'll provide right of way for upgrades to Highways 12 and 113, including the Rio Vista and Dixon bypass, and pay more than the new community's proportionate share of cost to do those upgrades."

9. Schools guarantee: "We guarantee that we won't just pay developer impact fees that leave school districts in a tough place, with new students overcrowding facilities. Instead, we commit to build 100% of new schools, in the new community, from day one. The new community will still remain in the existing school districts – we just guarantee that we will build new schools by the time the first children move in."

10. Solano taxpayer guarantee: "The new community will pay its own way through the tax revenue it generates. We commit that the infrastructure, public facilities, and services required to serve the new community will be constructed and operated at no cost to Solano taxpayers, except for those who live in the new community. This guarantee is built into the initiative in multiple places, and as with all of the ten voter guarantees, it is legally binding."

Learn more about California Forever and the East Solano Plan at this link.

Read through CBS13's other coverage of California Forever on our website.

Ashley Sharp is your reporter covering Solano County. Reach out to her by email at

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