Watsonville, California – Leaning In

Last year, when the folks in Watsonville, California, went to the polls, they got to cast a vote for their future. 

At stake: a tax increase. The additional funds (a half cent sales tax) were to be spent on the community. Funds to improve, enhance, and develop. 

City leaders were advised to not even put it on the ballot. It will never pass, they were told. It will never work.

In nearby communities, similar measures didn’t pass. The county didn’t even put it on the ballot, fearing failure. 

But here’s the thing: you can’t do anything unless you try. 

Trying takes courage, especially in the face of doubtors. It takes belief in the outcome and the journey it takes to get there.

Watsonville believes. They believe in their leaders. They believe in their city. They believe the best is yet to come.

At the Core

Watsonville is the third largest city in the Monterey- Santa Cruz region in central California. Agriculture is big business here, with big names like Driscoll’s, Martinelli’s, and Monterey Mushrooms calling it home. 

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful  place to live with the agriculture and the business quality that we have,” believes Watsonville Mayor, Eduardo Montesino. “But it’s the resiliency of our community. Our hard working community has a lot of heart. I think that is the core of our community.” 

City Manager René Mendez agrees. “What’s special about Watsonville,” he states, “for a community of 50,000 people, is just the depth of engagement. The nonprofits, the Community Business Organizations… I think it’s more than towns twice or three times bigger. And for a town our size, there’s a lot of diversity. And diversity not only is people, but in thought process. In how they value this special place. This community has wrapped around itself, wanting to lean into our strengths.”

Hungry for More 

There’s a unity that comes when everybody leans in. There’s buy-in. There’s ownership. There’s pride.

Last year, the hospital in town was bankrupt and up for sale. “The community stepped up and said no,” Mendez recalls. “They didn’t want their hospital sold.” They rallied. They took action. With help from the state and many investors, the community actually bought the hospital. It’s now locally owned and run as Watsonville Community Hospital. This ownership, according to Montesino, will help bring more services, like health education and mental health services, to their residents. It’s a significant asset to not only Watsonville, but to the entire region. “It will help fuel and drive economic development and the development of a community with the quality of life deserved by all of our residents,” asserts Montesino. 

Mendez sees a hunger in Watsonville for more: they rallied to save their hospital. They voted yes to invest back in their city. “We relied on community support and they came through,” states Montesino. “And that’s going to be a game changer for us because we can invest big time in the community.”

That big time investment is well under way. That ‘yes’ casts a large net over many areas in the city: parks, libraries, arts, education, infrastructure, and downtown. 

For starters, Ramsey Park, the largest park, will receive major upgrades with the Ramsey
Renaissance Project. This brings renovations to fields, as well as the addition of a dog park, playground equipment, and an artificial turf field. The project also includes a new 3,500 square foot Nature Center, called the Watsonville Exploration Project. It’s all part of Watsonville’s beautiful outdoor green spaces, which boasts an 800-acre freshwater wetland, along with 26 parks, spanning 43 acres. 

It will also go toward education. The Watsonville City Council just approved a $1.3 million contract with the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. The city will be running all of the after-school programs. “We’re pretty excited about it because our reach with our youth and the collaboration with the school districts just deepen,” Mendez explains. “One thing we are looking forward to,” he continues, “is the intentionality behind tracking how effective we are in partnering with the school– sharing data on kids that come through our program.” He wants to make tangible impacts on the lives of those kids. 

The city is dedicated to their youth. The Park and Rec Department is working on 40 Developmental Assets, partnering with the school district and other nonprofits. “We’re trying to get a framework,” shares Mendez, “of how we approach our youth engagement in programs city-wide. This is so we can share resources, not duplicate efforts, or compete against each other. We can really enhance the kind of impact we have on our youth.”

Watsonville is focused on engaging and empowering their youth. Each summer, they hire 40 youth as interns. They believe in the power of mentorship and pouring into their own as evidenced by the many youth led organizations. 

Those youth have many local options, too, to further their education. Within a 30 mile radius, there is UC Santa Cruz, Cal State Monterey Bay, and two junior colleges: Monesbay and Cabrillo. “There’s a lot of opportunity to really look at how we can connect and how we can support pathways and education,” Mendez adds. 

Ready to Move

“What’s happening in this community right now is all these planning efforts, long range, to really shape our future– that are happening at the same time,” Mendez says. “It’s a great opportunity for us to connect the dots– to leverage– to really go out to our community and engage with them and invest in them.” 

Investments will be made into libraries, senior programs, and the arts, as well. The city recently sold a building to the Arts Council. “We’re starting to have a much more intentional arts presence,” comments Mendez.

They are reimagining their downtown, too, with their Downtown Master Plan. It includes street repairs and projects, along with making the area more vibrant and walkable. Mendez hopes to have more mixed use spaces, “which will enhance and help our local businesses thrive,” he believes. “Part of the challenge is, depending on your perspective, gentrification. A way to alleviate this concern is by spending a lot of time investing in what we already have– by investing in our existing businesses.

What they do have is a full-service city. Watsonville has their own waste services, that in turn, run their own organics programs. They also have a water reuse program, one of the first cities on the central coast to do so. In addition, they are in the early stages of looking at a microgrid for a few of their waste plants.

At the same time, they keep an eye on sustainability. They have a pilot electrification program, funded by grants that explore the questions, What does it really mean to electrify our homes? What’s the cost? What’s the impact? 

All of these plans and upgrades make Watsonville attractive for businesses looking to plant some roots here. “We’re starting to discuss three pretty exciting projects around our downtown,” Mendez reveals. They are getting interest from places like Joby. “That’s the Uber of Sky,” Mendez explains. “It’s a vertical helicopter integration platform, where they land in front of your street, pick you up, and take you to the airport. It’s a very huge operation in the area. We’re having conversations about them utilizing our airport.” That airport, Watsonville Municipal Airport, is the only one in the region. 

According to Mendez, those tech opportunities are realistic for Watsonville. The Language Defense Institute in Monterey, University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), California State University – Monterey Bay (CSUMB), and Silicon Valley are all close by. “Watsonville provides an opportunity,” he believes. “We’re in the middle of a lot of high technology… and Watsonville has the space.” Companies are starting to look at Watsonville- for both that space and the quality of their workforce. 

And the Floods Came

Watsonville, unfortunately though, has been in the middle of flooding, as of late. 

“We got hammered on December 31st,” Mendez says. Two creeks that flow into the Pajaro River, Corralitos and Salsipuedes, caused major flooding to the Senior Village in Watsonville that continued for several weeks into the New Year. It not only impacted residents, but also public infrastructure. More flooding in early March, due to a levee breach, devastated nearby Pajaro. Watsonville has stepped in, helping their neighbors by providing shelters and other aid. 

Prior to the recent flooding, plans were under way for a major levy reconstruction project with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Pajata River Flood Management Agency, and the city. The project, in the design phase, is estimated to be over $400 million in infrastructure work. Area leaders, working with various partners and Congressional delegation, are hoping to get the wheels spinning even faster on this much-needed project. 

All in for the Journey

When you lean in, you are in a posture of action. You are no longer on your heels, watching. Your weight is forward, ready to move. 

Watsonville’s leaders are leaning in, too. And they are working hard to make Watsonville the best they can. “It’s the energy right now that’s driving the community’s hunger for change. It’s the community’s hunger asking, ‘Why can’t I have this in my city?’” says Montesino. “So that is what’s pushed our efforts. We have a huge responsibility with the public’s money and the public’s trust,” he adds.

They aren’t afraid to try new things. Trying, after all, takes courage. 

“I think there’s the realization that we can’t expect different results if we do it the way we’ve always done it,” states Mendez. “Be bold. Be audacious. We shouldn’t be afraid to lean in and look at something… Sometimes we hold ourselves back… Sometimes the best way of leading is to just get out of the way.”

With all of this planning coming to fruition, Mendez believes they have a golden opportunity: “Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of it and figure out a way to leverage it and partner with it. These things don’t come around all the time.”

Watsonville is all in– leaning in to both the outcome and the journey it takes to get there.


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