By MARC LUTZ
Business Journal Editor
WOODBRIDGE — In an address to city leaders, business owners and lifelong residents, Lodi Mayor Doug Kuehne talked about the positive growth and changes that his city is seeing.
Kuehne delivered his remarks at the 2017 Mayor’s State of the City Breakfast at Woodbridge Golf and Country Club to a packed audience, eager to hear the message, which covered topics such as new businesses, housing developments, homelessness and job creation.
“I’m going to take you through a tour of Lodi,” Kuehne said. “The best way to tell the state of the city is through a little story time.”
Several new businesses are opening in Lodi, using current properties to in-fill. In what used to be a Kmart, four new businesses will be setting up shop. Ross, DD’s Discounts, Grocery Outlet and Planet Fitness will all be taking up residence in the space.
The eastside of Highway 99, which is mostly industrial, is now home to Liebherr USA Co. and MHA Construction, both of which are located in buildings that had previously been empty for quite some time.
Kuehne pointed to the recent housing boom that’s been taking place in the city, including several housing developments totaling hundreds of new units and an apartment complex which is the first in Lodi in decades.
“The Rubicon Reynolds Ranch apartment complex, they’re going to have … 156 units. This is truly amazing for the City of Lodi. It’s been over 35 years since we had a luxury apartment complex built in Lodi,” Kuehne said. Along with that apartment complex will be a Kelly’s Carwash, Sprouts Market, Fairfield Marriott and Revel, a senior-living facility.
“I’m pretty stoked about this project. They’re going to have a restaurant on location. The only way you can get into that restaurant is if you know someone living at that facility,” Kuehne said. “They’re going to have a chef on site, cooking for the seniors living there.”
Development and improvement is happening all across the city, including the city’s eastside, which Kuehne said they will no longer refer to as such. From now on, that portion of town is regarded as the “Heritage District.”
A mayoral block grant improvement project has been started to clean-up and improve the region.
Pointing to crime, Kuehne said gang violence is almost a distant memory. In 2011, there were 256 gang-related incidents in Lodi, and only 39 in 2017, he said. That reduction comes through the efforts of a gang task force and through a preventative program that identifies at-risk teens and works to steer them away from the gang life.
There were five homicides in Lodi in 2016, Kuehne said. There are zero for this year.
That’s not to say that Lodi doesn’t still have problem.
“We shouldn’t let our problems overwhelm our purpose,” said Steven Schwabauer, Lodi City Manager, in his talk. “We’ve faced problems before. We had a major crisis with PCE … The PCE problem is pretty well tamed … and the water we serve is clean.”
The major issue facing city government at this problem is the public employment retirement fund.
“Today, we’ve got the PERS problem. The $100 million monster,” Schwabauer said of the retirement pension program. He went on to say projections point to the first bill going from $6.5 million in 2016 to $13.5 million by 2022, 2023. “We’re working on it, but like any problem, it’s like eating an elephant – take one bite at time. We’ve made progress. We’ll make more.”
Another problem that Lodi is solving by looking to other cities for solutions is that of homelessness.
“The City Council decided to start the … Homeless Solutions Group,” Kuehne said. The problem was discussed and researched. The group looked to cities like New York and Los Angeles to see what they were doing. “Three months ago, after doing all the research and all the leg work, we decided to fund a community liaison officer, Ryan Holtz.”
In the three months since Holtz began his position, Kuehne said, he has contacted in excess of 175 homeless people in Lodi. He has been able to find placement and jobs for 41 individuals. He has also been able to reunite a few with families, he said. “He’s doing a great job.”
San Joaquin County has tapped Lodi as the model for homeless outreach, citing the success of the program.
“Lodi is changing. We are now a tourist destination with almost 90 wineries and a variety of other things for tourists to do,” Kuehne said. “Will we embrace this change, or will we fight it? I think most of us are proud that more and more people know about Lodi, and want to visit us.”
Those changes bring growing pains, Kuehne said. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”