For ‘California Forever’ CEO, business is personal

Sramek: ‘Very committed to the project from the beginning’

CEO Jan Sramek is following through on his company’s promise to Solano County to initiate a conversation. He said he’s spent the last few weeks talking with anyone and everyone who’s interested in what California Forever’s plans are in the region, after years of quietly buying up over 52,000 acres of land in eastern Solano County.

After initial reporting from The New York Times revealed the investor group’s plans to transform the land into a dense urban environment with affordable housing powered by renewable energy, Sramek’s name has certainly been in the headlines — both locally and nationally.

Sramek wants skeptical Solano County residents to know that the project is personal to him, despite the flood of information that has come out about California Forever since.

Sramek’s ties to Solano County go back much further, to fishing trips he’s taken on the Sacramento River Delta over the years. He’s been impressed by the natural landscape, industry, and people of the area since the beginning.

“Many of the great things about California come together in Solano County,” he explained.

REALIZED: How would California Forever look? The developer’s artist renderings are shown below.

The former Goldman Sachs investor and London School of Economics graduate is putting his money where his mouth is by relocating his young family to Solano County this weekend. However, he recognizes the county’s regional and local challenges and hopes that the proposed project will assist in finding solutions.

“A lot of these types of projects fail or are done poorly because someone in New York or Los Angeles is running a project that’s thousands or hundreds of miles away,” he said. “As a result, if it doesn’t work, it has no effect on them.”

Sramek stated that he wants locals, which is not the case here, because he has been very committed to the project since its inception.

“If we cause traffic, I’ll be stuck in traffic,” he explained, “so it’s very personal.”

While Sramek and his team are eager to make that vision a reality as soon as possible, he wants Solano County residents to know they’re in it for the long haul and committed to being good neighbors. California Forever has taken its time to carefully set up this project, he said, and they are taking a 40-year approach to real estate development rather than a short-term approach.

“We have the patience to do it right over 30 or 40 years,” Sramek explained, “but we also have an eagerness to get started and start building some of the initial things—whether it’s a solar farm or the first homes—in the next few years.”

And the company’s and investors’ patience, according to Sramek, means they can look into opportunities to make larger infrastructure improvements for the entire region in the long run.

“Given its scale, this project has the potential to be a catalyst for solving some of these problems that have been unsolvable for the last 20 years,” he said.

Repairing Fences

Following the project’s launch, local leaders expressed their disappointment that the company’s intentions had been kept under wraps for so long, and expressed concern about the company’s lack of detail on its long-term plan. After speaking with many area mayors and four of the five county supervisors, Sramek said he has already seen many of those concerns dissipate, but he knows California Forever will have to convince them, and ultimately, Solano County residents, that this plan is beneficial to the county as a whole.

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“We completely understand the skepticism,” he said, “or, at the very least, the kind of neutral position, and people really can’t comment until they know the plan.”

He explained that there were good reasons for the company to operate quietly until this summer, but it was not a decision made lightly.

“We were quiet about the project because we felt that the only way to design the right project and get to build and design a project that protected Travis, preserved habitat lands, generated renewable power, and then built that new community was to have a large amount of land on which you could be flexible,” Sramek explained. “And if we hadn’t kept quiet about the projects, there would have been a land rush.” Speculators would have come in, resulting in a patchwork of disorderly growth and disorderly projects proposed, which is exactly what no one wants.”

Being so quiet, Sramek explained, was in the best interests of the community as a whole, and that people would come to appreciate it over time. People have come to understand why it is necessary, he says, but it will take time to build community trust.

And, while they were quiet before the plans were made public, Sramek says the goal now is to be as open and transparent as possible.

“If you have any questions, we’ll try to answer them,” he said. “And for some of them, if we don’t have answers yet, we will get back to you.”

What comes next?

Rome was not built in a day, and neither will California Forever’s vision for eastern Solano. Sramek stated that the company’s sole focus for the next four months and into 2024 will be community engagement on all levels, with the goal of meeting with elected officials, community organizations, and eventually as many locals as possible.

“What we want to do in the next four months is hear from everyone about how we could design it to work for them,” he explained.

California Forever, which has already met with many local politicians, will also meet with the farm bureau, chamber of commerce, Rotary Club, environmental groups, and Travis Air Force Base, according to Sramek.

Travis, he said, is an excellent example of a stakeholder with whom they will have to collaborate, as they have already begun the conversation and informed the base that they have no intention of locating any development closer to Travis than the city of Fairfield already does, or in the Travis reserve area.

“We see many opportunities where this project can help Travis,” he said.

RELATED: ‘California Forever’ backers from Silicon Valley release polling results

Sramek isn’t afraid to admit that the project will require broad community support, not only because he believes it’s important to be good neighbors to Rio Vista, Suisun City, Fairfield, and the base, but also because this issue will have to go on the ballot and be approved by Solano County voters in order to move forward.

‘We are quite serious about putting this on the November 2024 ballot,’ he said, “and we will be putting forward much more specific plans heading into the end of the year, and definitely by January.”

However, before putting pen to paper, California Forever is serious about its community engagement project, and it cannot provide more details until those conversations have taken place. They intend to open storefronts in the coming months where residents will be able to view plans, meet with staff, and discuss the specifics of what the project will entail, according to Sramek.

The clock is ticking.

According to Sramek, there is a sense of resignation about housing developments in California because each project takes 15 years to get approved before it can even begin. While Sramek is clear that he does not want the project rushed, he is also committed to ensuring that it is not delayed.

It’s not right, he says, that popular projects that could improve people’s lives spend so much time bogged down in unnecessary red tape when they could be helping people right now. People typically measure these processes in years, but Sramek prefers to consider the human cost.

He used the example of a parent who lives in Solano County but commutes to the Bay Area every day for up to an hour and a half. They could spend more time with their children if this project brought a high-paying job to the area and reduced their commute time to 10-15 minutes. But if the project is delayed for six years, that family will miss six more years of breakfasts and dinners.

“It’s not right,” he complained. “I mean, you only have 365 evenings to read a bedtime story to your three-year-old.” And once that time has passed, it is gone forever. You can’t get it back.”

As a result, there is a sense of urgency, he said, and the company hopes to collaborate with the county and state to expedite the project if they can garner support.

He believes that cutting-edge technology will help him solve problems faster and more efficiently. Because California Forever is committed to not taking water away from existing communities, the development’s water will come from its own sources.

While groundwater and rain capture can provide some freshwater for the area, he believes that innovative water infrastructure could allow the average household in the new community to use half the water that a Solano County household currently uses.

The devil is in the particulars

Mayor John Carli of Vacaville said he met with California Forever and described the meeting as more of an introduction than anything else. While he is pleased that communication is now open, he says he must continue to protect the interests of Vacaville and Solano County as more information about the project becomes available.

Carli also stated that the details are still insufficient for him to make an informed decision about the project’s future. He has, however, had the opportunity to share the interests important to Vacaville in this process, such as water, energy, and Travis’ long-term viability.

“They claim to have a shared interest,” he says, “but they have yet to demonstrate it.”

The mayor wants to see what California Forever’s plans are for Travis, as the purchased land borders the base. Carli stated that he has spoken with Air Force officials about the base’s security.

Carli compares the company to a new neighbor who has moved into a neighborhood—it’s natural to be curious, if not skeptical, about who the new neighbors are.

Carli added that California Forever has control over its own future because it has the opportunity to show the community that this is a good idea. However, there aren’t enough specifics on the table yet for Carli to know for certain what he thinks.

“It’s difficult to reach a conclusion,” he admitted.

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