Oakland A’s deal is another winning play for West Sacramento

The Oakland A’s are baseball’s biggest losers. But their new temporary home — West Sacramento — is one of California’s greatest winners.

No California city has had a better 21st century than West Sacramento. The municipality of 54,000 people has grown in population and prosperity with striking speed, even as California has stagnated on both fronts. 

The A’s will spend three years, 2025 through 2027, in West Sacramento’s minor league ballpark as they wait for a new stadium to be built in their future home, Las Vegas. Perhaps their relocation will bring West Sac, as it’s often called, more of the notice it merits, both in California’s city halls and among state policymakers.

The city’s success is attributable to smart local governance, and to three paradoxes best explained in light of California peculiarities. 

The first paradox: West Sac was able to grow rich because it was so poor. Across the river, Sacramento became a city in 1849, a year before California won statehood. West Sacramento didn’t incorporate until 1987. For most of the 20th century, it was an afterthought — an industrial town of seedy hotels, vacant lots, warehouses, rice silos and major highways nearby communities didn’t want.

All that kept land prices low, which made West Sac attractive as the rest of the region became more expensive. The city carefully invested in new infrastructure, streets and sewers to allow for new neighborhoods. A first wave of development, around the turn of the century, focused on the riverfront. Among the catalysts there was the A’s future digs, previously called Raley Field (now named for Sutter Health), which opened in 2000. 

Speedy development

This brings me to the second paradox: West Sac achieved big success because it was small. A quarter century ago, it had just 30,000 residents and a median household income of $32,000. Residents wanted to see improvements. And the powerful unions, environmental groups and state agencies that so often delay California projects were too busy elsewhere to mess with a poor city with relatively few people.

So, Raley Field took just 19 months from ground-breaking to opening. Restaurants and other businesses found they could launch quickly. And while housing construction languished elsewhere, West Sacramento built both market and affordable housing at the some of the fastest rates in California. That speed was a function of West Sac’s ability to create entire new neighborhoods, like master-planned Southport, as well as infill development in the city center. 

The small city also faced little public opposition as it used its cheap land to bring in several large retailers, most notably the Capitol region’s first IKEA, a crowning achievement, in 2006. The retailers produced considerable sales taxes that provided the city with revenues for more projects. After the retailers came corporate headquarters, many of them companies involved in food production.

Such speedy development points to the third paradox: West Sac benefited both because of its distance from, and its proximity to, the city of Sacramento.

The two cities lie just across the river from each other. But West Sac is its own separate municipality and is situated in a different county, Yolo, with a mix of rural places and smaller cities. Sacramento runs on constant political competition, which can distract from the slow and painstaking work of governance. West Sac has had the good fortune of stable political leadership for over a generation.

The embodiment of that stability was Christopher Cabaldon, a legislative aide and higher education administrator who first moved to West Sac after taking the wrong freeway off-ramp. He ended up serving on the city council and then as mayor for more than two decades.

In a small community, he could move fast. “We focus on results as opposed to process,” he told Governing in 2019.  “A lot of other communities are into community meetings and workshops and planning and task forces and consultant reports, and, no, that’s not us.”

Focus on housing

In contrast to Sacramento, whose city government is prone to obsess about creating signature attractions (an arena, an aquarium) to draw visitors, West Sac focused on building the housing and amenities to attract more residents.

Its proximity to the Capitol eventually became a draw. As California’s growing state government brought more people to Sacramento, and affordable housing became ever harder to find, people took notice of West Sac, with its new housing, new neighborhoods and new restaurants. Many West Sac residents lived so close to the Capitol that they could walk across the Tower Bridge and be at work in minutes.