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Novato's New Economic Chief Helped Bring Fireman's Fund to Town

Chris Stewart, a San Francisco native, takes economic development job 35 years after helping insurance company settle here.

A man who has run several corporations, helped bring Fireman's Fund Insurance to Novato and consulted on civic economic development for years has been hand-picked to lead Novato's business-related efforts.

Chris Stewart, a San Francisco native who has triggered private-sector investment and growth of tax bases up and down the state, was named the city of Novato's economic development manager this week by City Manager Michael Frank, according to a release sent out by the city Thursday.

"I know I can push the envelope for business to do more and have a positive impact," Stewart said from his home in Toluca Lake. "I know there has been a lot of controversy and differences of opinion about how to develop, but the key is to work with everyone impacted and come up with compromise. I have never been one to push a round peg into a square hole."

Stewart worked directly with Fireman's Fund leadership in the late 1970s to find a place for the company's headquarters, and the verdict was Novato. Today almost 1,000 employees work at the home base at 777 San Marin Drive.

"I know why companies would want to locate there," he said.

Stewart, who will start at a salary of $121,656, starts work on Oct. 8 and will report directly to Frank.

The position, approved by the Novato City Council as part of the 2012-2013 budget, is focused on restarting the city’s development efforts without the aid of the Novato Redevelopment Agency, which was dismantled along with 400 other RDAs by Gov. Jerry Brown.

In the press release, Frank said his staff looked for a candidate who would "value the character of our community while recognizing the importance of stabilizing, growing and diversifying our local economy. I am confident that Chris will successfully reinvigorate our efforts by encouraging a variety of community perspectives and ultimately develop a shared vision for a prosperous, sustainable Novato.”

Stewart is a graduate of Lincoln High in San Francisco, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University's graduate school. He has spent about 25 years in the Los Angeles area and worked most recently with his Stewart Consulting Group.

Stewart, 62, ran three economic development corporations in Los Angeles and Central Valley areas and most recently served as a consultant on economic development for public agencies. He has assisted private-sector companies, including some overseas, to relocate and expand businesses in the U.S. He helped organize the public-private partnership that secured Merced as a University of California site, resulting in a $500 million campus and a massive boost to the locally economy there.

Stewart's Novato position was created along with a part-time position to focus on revitalizing the city-owned properties in the Hamilton region. Funding is coming from Measure F, a half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2010. The positions will be funded for the next four years, Frank said.

"It doesn't bother me that funding isn't for beyond four years," Stewart said. "It's a great community with great character. Hopefully I'll work those four years and have a lot of successes and then maybe even buy a business after I retire."

The duties of the role will be somewhat similar to those played by Ron Gerber, the former director of the Novato Redevelopment Agency. Gerber is now the economic development director in Walnut Creek.

According to the job description, Stewart's task is to enhance business investment and help grow the city’s tax base. Additional duties include business attraction and retention and serving as the lead staff to the Economic Development Advisory Commission as well as a link to the business community.

Novato has several major projects either deep in the planning stages or in the general concept stratosphere. Within the next four years, the city is expected to address the North Redwood Boulevard corridor between Grant Avenue and San Marin Drive/Atherton Avenue. Many areas of that stretch, especially on the east side of Redwood just north of Olive Avenue, are aching for an upgrade and have been called "blight" by city leaders.

John Williams, a commercial real estate broker for Sperry Van Ness in Novato, chairs the city's Economic Development Advisory Commission. He said the city is thriving despite talk of a slow economic recovery from the Great Recession.

“With major employers like Fireman’s Fund and the Buck Institute for Research and Aging, and a burgeoning biotech industry, our city is a symbol of opportunity and economic vitality," Williams said in the release. "I am pleased that we are getting a high-caliber candidate such as Chris. He will help us retain that talent and investment, as well as expand our economic opportunities, to advance the financial health and quality of life in Novato.”

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Mark Burnham October 05, 2012 at 03:21 AM
He brought Fireman's Fund to town! Good to hear. Perhaps now he can usher in a shread of common sense to the city council's brains. Hey Chris.. your first order of business should be to squeeze every ounce of information out of the guy who sat in your seat a year or so ago. Ron Gerber is in Walnut Creek now and it is no secret that he left on his own and disagreed wholeheartedly (under his breath) with the building of city offices downtown. Marketed as the "single biggest city/taxpayer funded capital expeniture in the city's history"... but know by most as "the single biggest waste of taxpayer funds and dowtown prime real estate in the city's history". Good luck Chris.
janna nikkola October 06, 2012 at 03:16 AM
Let's see if he can convince the Buck Institute to hire a couple people from Novato or Marin County. The last I heard they were planning on importing scientists from China. Considering Beryl Buck's expressed wishes for the use of her money after she was gone, it's a travesty most of that money is going for medical research rather than for "educational, religious and nonprofit use to benefit the residents of Marin County". If more of her money were actually going toward education, Marin County might well be the most educated county in the country. Too bad and too sad her wishes have been ignored. (Ya really gotta do yer givin' while yer livin' so yer knowin' where it's goin'.)

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