People of Sacramento commenting on the news: Bernadette Austin

Bernadette Austin, community development consultant. Photo: Kevin Fiscus.
Bernadette Austin, community development consultant. Photo: Kevin Fiscus.

(This is the 30th installment in a weekly series with people who don’t work in journalism commenting on the news. Photography by Kevin Fiscus. If you’d like to participate, message or tweet me.)

Meet Bernadette Austin.

She’s 35, grew up in La Honda, graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California, lives in West Sacramento where she serves as a planning commissioner, co-chairs the Women’s Leadership Initiative for the Sacramento chapter of the Urban Land Institute and works as an community development consultant.

In eight years working on affordable housing, urban infill and mixed-use projects, she’s watched numerous developments grow from “nothing to something.” She says success comes from focusing on the “non sexy stuff” — predevelopment, financing, construction, fostering relationships — and convincing all parties to embrace a long-term vision that may not manifest in immediate results.

“It’s made me a believer and also forced me to be patient,” she says. As a developer, “the players change, the game stays the same.”

When we met at Naked Coffee in November, I must admit, we talked more about opportunities in the city of Sacramento than we did media consumption or her thoughts on news.

Bernadette moved to the region in 2005 to attend graduate school at UC Davis. After one year, she didn’t want to leave. After two years, she found herself defending her master’s thesis during the same week her family purchased a home in West Sacramento. She’s now a proud Aggie and a self-described “West Sac junkie.”

“I fell in love with the region fairly quickly,” she says.

She’s a runner, a bike commuter and was once a kickboxing and yoga instructor. She’s now in a period of transition and has been reflecting on one of the lessons she used to teach: When you strip yourself bare and take away your titles, what are you?

She wants to help more women advance in her field, she wants to support local organizations that promote smart growth and she wants to think bigger, by refocusing on mixed-use communities rather than mixed-use developments.

“How cities are planned plays a huge role in community health,” she says.

She’s worked on a couple projects in West Sacramento that fit this vision, including the city’s first urban farm stand and the community center. She credits a city council and chamber that work well together with many “awesome, progressive things” to come.

In Sacramento, she says, momentum spurred by the downtown arena can be channelled to neighborhoods, along counties and statewide.

“We need the urban core to thrive if we want the region to thrive,” she says. Invest in the riverfront to facilitate a more connected, more accessible city for residents. Help people elsewhere discover what makes the region special. “Our rivers are more beautiful than the rivers that run through other big cities.”

Some work can be simple and less risky. Placemaking and street activation, she says, can serve as an economical way for entrepreneurs to test a market. Small business owners can connect with a community in a public way at well-run, inclusive events and then decide whether it makes sense to invest in a brick-and-mortar location.

“When you do street activation and placemaking, you’re creating something out of nothing,” she says.

Other projects can be much more ambitious. She envisions community groups, lobbyists and politicians coming together to pilot civic innovation. Successful initiatives could then be spread throughout the state.

“We’re a government city,” she says, “it’s time we embrace that.”

Bernadette answered the following questions by email about how she gets the news. Text submitted October 28.

How do you get your news?
I get my news almost exclusively through social media. I follow local and national news outlets on Facebook and Twitter. However, I most often get my news from my contacts via social media. Either they are newsmakers themselves, or they share news pertinent to our shared interests. I also subscribe to local new magazines and receive print copies.

What’s the first news event you remember?
In third grade, our teacher assigned a journaling activity every day. She was one of my favorite teachers and this was one of my favorite activities. The year was 1989. On October 17, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, and I lived 50 miles from the epicenter. I remember my family and neighbors being glued to the radio and TV stations. You could hear the newscasters voices blaring from every house, since the fear of aftershocks forced families to have dinner outside that evening. In the early hours the following morning, the radio newscaster announced that my school had been cleared for attendance. The earthquake was all anyone could talk about at school. Some kids had even been at the World Series game at the time. When it came time to work on my journal response, I accompanied my writing with images I had seen of the collapsed Bay Bridge. TV stations replayed the scene over and over, much like they would replay images of the Twin Towers 20 years later. I still have that journal page in a box of mementos.


What content do you pay for?
I pay for local magazines and read print versions of them. I don’t pay for online content.

What’s the last great thing you ate?
I am half Filipino, so when I find myself in South Sacramento, I go out of my way to get my Filipino food fix. I usually get señorita bread from Valerio’s, but this time I tried some from Starbread Bakery. Both bakeries make amazing señorita bread—or maybe señorita bread is always delicious. It is a buttery, sugary crescent roll served warm.

Who’s doing it right in news?
I like the direction of our local news magazines, such as Sacramento Magazine, Sactown Magazine and Comstock’s. Perhaps the hyper-current climate of the media forces magazines to take a different approach to reporting. In any case, it is refreshing to read articles about local people and companies that are interesting and thought-provoking. The Bee’s recent article about Genny was a departure from their typical reporting, but it was incredibly engaging and nuanced.

Name the three most important issues facing Sacramento.
In my mind, the top three most important issues facing Sacramento are intertwined with each other. Collectively, our ability to address all three will determine whether and how our region will claim its unique, vibrant world-class identity.

(1) Development of the urban core — In regions around the country, there is a shift away from the suburbanization that dominated 20th century development patterns. Boasting dense cultural amenities and carless mobility, city centers are drawing residents, businesses and investment. Sacramento’s urban core is poised for exponential growth and development, particularly with the development of the arena, railyards, and waterfront neighborhoods like Township 9 and the Bridge District. What remains to be seen is how these developments respond to the sometimes competing interests of economic vitality, cultural vibrancy and social equity.

(2) Social equity — One of things I love about Sacramento is that, in contrast to places like San Francisco, we have a thriving middle class. I would like to see our schools, housing stock and employment opportunities reflect this. One significant sub-issue is homelessness. The reasons and responsibility are too involved to discuss here. Suffice it to say, how we address homelessness is critical. Certainly, it is a social equity issue, particularly for the low-income families that were hard hit by the housing crash. But we cannot forget about the impact of homelessness on economic development. Businesses struggle in areas with highly visible, chronically homeless individuals. We see this extending from the central city to outer ring neighborhoods.

(3) Local entrepreneurship — Our region benefits from having more than its fair share of creatives and innovators. Our food scene and festivals provide a forum for these burgeoning entrepreneurs. We cannot forget that these types of people are highly mobile. If they can’t thrive here, they can and will move on. From what they tell me, the ease of starting businesses, access to investment, and the cost of housing and doing business are key factors that will determine whether they succeed—or leave.

What do you absolutely hate about the news?
Although I admit that I get most of my news through social media, I am disappointed by the hit-driven style of reporting. Headlines seem to be getting even more important in this era driven by 140-character content. I prefer real content to the click bait-style of some articles. Each of the local and national publications I read is guilty of this, even though they are capable from valuable, well-researched content. I understand the changing economics of the publishing world, and I would pay to subscribe for consistently thoughtful content.

What’s the most important issue to you that’s not being covered well enough?
My top three areas of interest in local media outlets are pretty hot topics in the news, thankfully. The national publications I follow do a good job covering topics I am interested in on a national scale. However, I do think that there could be more coverage of local interest in local media. It seems that only crime beats cover neighborhood news. I think readers would be really interested in issues facing their local schools and small businesses, for example.

If you could be anywhere, an-hour-and-a-half drive away, where would you be?
My family loves spending time by the river. Some of our favorite destinations are the American River confluence in Auburn, riverfront trails perfect for running and biking, and even the small riverside beaches a short hike from our house. I realize that I spend most of my energy on developing our urban core, but one of the best things about our region is the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Follow Bernadette (@bernadettea) on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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