When Rex Osborn took the job of Plymouth City Manager on April 18, 2019, he didn’t expect his first two years on the job would be so eventful. I talked with Osborn last week to talk about his background, the business climate in Plymouth, and plans that are underway for the city as we begin to exit the pandemic.
It may surprise you to know that Osborn doesn’t live either in Plymouth or in Amador County. “I come from the Central Valley and I live in western Modesto.” He lives on what he calls “almost a ranch” raising miniature donkeys, ducks, and other animals. That means Osborn must commute between Modesto and Plymouth.
He had to drive to Plymouth four days a week before the COVID-19 pandemic, but today his commute is down to two days a week. “It’s an hour and 33-minute drive,” Osborn added, “and I listen to audiobooks that I get from the Amador County Library.”
Before Osborn became the Plymouth city manager, he served as the public affairs officer in Manteca. After he retired from his Manteca city job, he said, “I asked myself, what else can I do at 60 years old?” Osborn decided to apply for the city manager job in Plymouth because, he said, “I felt I could make a difference internally because that’s where my expertise is at, in dealing with employees and employers.”
The fit between the city and Osborn has been a good one. “They have good people who create a good foundation then I just come in and manage it basically on a day-to-day basis,” he noted. He thinks the staff likes him, “and I know that the community tolerates me,” he added with a laugh.
Working Through It
Osborn said the city has managed well during the pandemic. “We had issues with our businesses trying to remain open. Amador Vintage Market physically closed beyond the times that they were required to,” he noted. “Marlene and Glen’s is another place to eat, and they closed but they have since opened back up.”
He also pointed out that Plymouth had to pull together very quickly to address the needs of businesses during the pandemic. “We made sure there was nobody without,” Osborn said, “thanks to some good planning on the part of our finance director and our staff, as well as the city council being very supportive.”
As a result, Osborn added, “we were the first in Amador County to award $5,000 to every business that applied for assistance.” Though he noted that other cities in the county gave $1,000 to each business and had more businesses to help, Plymouth gave more to its businesses on the condition that the business had to retain at least one full-time employee for one year.
That one-year grace period ends next month, and Osborn noted that no businesses closed or defaulted. So, he said, “knock on wood, if they can make another month, we will forgive the $5,000.” Osborn added that the city has the federal Community Development Block Grant coming soon that will be able to assist residents and businesses with their utility, water, and sewer bills.
And more may come. “We also have another grant that we are hoping to receive where we’ll have some money to assist with micro-businesses bring in micro-business and to assist our citizens with some other economic opportunities,” Osborn said. “We don’t know what this will look like, but we might be able to help our restaurants, for example, with an incentive program to get employees because right now it’s very hard to hire anybody.”
Osborn noted that Plymouth is one of the few cities in Amador County that are growing, with a population he estimates is a little shy of 2,000 now. “We had the County assessor come and talk to us because of a development that we have called Zinfandel Ridge,” he said. “They’re going into their third phase, which is approximately another 40 homes. We have 58 homes from our previous phase. Those are brand new houses being built in a very thought-out and community-friendly development.”
More housing is on the way. “We have another development that is in the process of filing maps with us,” Osborn said. “We call it the Grelich Development and we don’t know how many homes that will be, but they’re looking at a medium density, so maybe two or three or four houses per acre versus Zinfandel Ridge, which is two houses per acre. That’s a couple of years down the road.”
Growth also brings challenges, especially in the management of resources. “We have to make sure that we have good water and sewer capacity,” Osborn said, “and because of our great relationship and some great grant funding, we have an exceptional wastewater treatment plant that will be able to handle reasonable growth.”
Even aside from recent discussions in Washington, D.C. about infrastructure funding, Osborn said infrastructure funding remains a top-of-mind issue for him. “Every day, we’re out fixing a one-foot section of pipe,” he said. “So we are in the process of trying to secure funding to replace 43,000 feet of sewer and 43,000 linear feet of waterlines. It’s about $150.00 a foot, so it comes out to about $13 million. And we’re working on trying to get that.”
Adjusting to a New Reality
Osborn quickly identified the one problem that local businesses face now: getting people to come back to work. “Our largest employer is hospitality, but in the hospitality industry, their biggest problem is getting people to come back to work,” he said. “People make more money on unemployment than they do coming back to work so why do it? So, until that changes, we’ll have a hard time getting employees to come to Amador County, not just us.”
That challenge plus the lingering effects of the pandemic prompted Osborn to note that businesses need to think differently than they did two years ago. “They have to now be conscientious of the pandemic as well as safety and security,” he said. “People want to go someplace safe.”
Osborn also pointed out that business owners need to prepare for disaster much more than they did in the past. “I think that our businesses need to start preparing for the what-ifs of the world,” he said. “They need to look at their business model and say, ‘Okay, what if I have to close again?’ Because before I think we went month to month, and now I think business realized that how quickly they can be forced to close.”
The city is also thinking differently about supporting businesses. To that end, the city has created a micro-business program called Plymouth Pop-Up Plaza. This Plaza will be in an empty lot on Main Street across from City Hall that the city owns (shown in the photo below). The city plans to make two tiny wooden buildings of 8-by-10 feet and one that is 8-by-12 feet. Though the city will provide power to each building, the insides of the building will be empty, and all buildings will have a front porch.
“This is where we’re going to encourage micro-businesses, home businesses that normally are at home that don’t have a brick and mortar to come,” Osborn explained. “They can rent the space very economically, they can set up there on our busy days, which is Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and sell what they make or what they buy or whatever it might be.” Prices are also attractive, with the city renting the smaller two shacks for $25 per day and the large one for $35 per day. The only other expenses, he added, are those required by law.
Osborn expects the shacks to be filled right away, and he’s already received several inquiries from businesses outside of the county. They include a fudge and candy maker in Fiddletown, a couple from Lodi that makes bread, and a woman from Roseville who blends tea. When the Plaza is set up, he said, they will operate from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
The goal of the Plaza, Osborn said, is to give these small businesses a foot in the door. “None of those three could afford to go to one of our empty buildings and rent it because it would be $3,000 to $4,000 a month without utilities. They’ll just never get into business.
“But if we can encourage it through this pop-up process,” he added, “that can show that they could be successful, and they can sell their product at a larger scale. They could scale it up. Maybe they’ll change their mind in six months and rent one of the six empty buildings we have in town.”
Though the Pop-Up Plaza is a concept used by communities nationally, Osborn said that the Plaza is unique in that Plymouth is having the shacks built for them. “And we paid for that through our Transit Occupancy Tax, some of our general fund money, and some parks money because it’s adjacent to one of our city parks,” he added. “We think the investment from Plymouth is worth it to get three new businesses, even if they’re temporary in town every weekend.”
Expect to see more news about the Plymouth Pop-Up Plaza soon. “It’ll be fun to see how it works,” Osborn said.
Adapt and Grow
Osborn added that the city has three food trucks in Plymouth, and the city plans to promote these food trucks heavily as we move into the late spring and summer months. What’s more, he said, “we have a food truck company that wants to spearhead the development of a food court on Main Street with three or four food trucks.”
Like all other communities, Plymouth has empty storefronts on Main Street, but it’s hard to get new businesses into those spaces. “Landlords want to be subsidized,” Osborn explained. “If you are a landlord and you have a building that you normally rent for $3,000 or $4,000 a month, and if people aren’t renting them, they want some kind of incentive.” That incentive, he said, can’t be public money from the general fund.
So, Osborn said that businesses and landlords need to be creative to help themselves. “With an empty building, you make no money but at least with some occupancy you would.” The city is working with businesses who want to enter buildings with such incentives as streamlining permits and reduced utility rates, and he said there are two businesses he’s working with as of this writing including a business next door to City Hall and a wine tasting group.
The limits of Plymouth’s economic base are also challenging. “Plymouth has got to be a hospitality community,” Osborn said. “We’re not going to have industries here. We don’t have an industrial site or buildings—it’s all going to be retail kind of stuff.”
In sum, Osborn said, Plymouth is changing even beyond the changes brought by the pandemic such as the alfresco dining you can find at restaurants in the city. And to address those changes, he added that the city is tapping into the can-do spirit of its residents. “We don’t sit,” he said. “If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it. And if there’s something we can help somebody do, we’re going to do it.
“We have to say no sometimes, but most of the part we look for, I tell the employees, “Don’t tell people no, right away. Let’s see how we can help them be whatever it might be, no matter if it’s home or business.”
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