Gonzales, California: A Small Town Done Right

Small towns often get a bad rep. After the scandal that broke in Bell several years ago, a new kind of suspicion befell many of the state’s smaller enclaves. Charges of corruption, nepotism and an economic backwardness flew. It’s a shame because these places have much to offer. When done right, a small town can turns its size into an advantage.

Take Gonzales, for example, a town of 9,000 nestled in Monterey County’s Salinas Valley. Much of the surrounding region is impoverished. But, as Zócalo Public Square’s Joe Mathews notes, Gonzales stands out for its stable leadership (Rene Mendez has served as city manager for 13 years), its relatively low crime rate and high graduation rates, plus some impressive economic development wins.

In other words, Gonzales is an example of small towns done right.

Speed works. In the past three fiscal years, Gonzales’ tax base has grown by 17 percent, 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Those gains represent more than 1,200 new jobs. Gonzales companies are oriented toward technology, agriculture and the environment. Among them are HealthySoil, which manufactures products that improve crop production, and Ramsay Highlander, which designs and manufactures advanced harvesting equipment. Soon, Gonzales will be home to a 130,000-square-foot Mann Packing plant.

How do they do it?

Gonzales’ approach is unconventional among California small towns. The more typical formula is to beautify the town center and develop a signature entertainment venue that attracts visitors, while chasing major retailers like Costco to produce high levels of sales tax for municipal coffers.

But Gonzales, somewhat isolated, was not a natural fit for tourism and malls. Instead of chasing visitors and big retailers, Mendez wanted the city to focus on its own residents. So the city has enhanced its industrial footprint and taken advantage of nearby agriculture. Gonzales doesn’t have a Costco but produces the vegetable trays you buy there.

Mendez says the lack of bureaucracy means greater speed and efficiency. By living leaner, Gonzales lives better. It also means city leaders take the reins on relationship building, forging their own key partnerships.

“Our types of communities have to do a better job of working together to pursue jobs and advocate for each other,” he says.

Things aren’t perfect. Like many other municipalities, Gonzales has a housing problem. It’s also eyeing some much need infrastructure improvements. So far though, it appears to be on the right track.