The following Back in the Day column originally appeared in the Fairfield Daily Republic on July 20, 2018
By Tony Wade
A 1988 Daily Republic newspaper column referred to Fairfield City Manager B. Gale Wilson, who was retiring after 32 years, as “the chief architect of modern Fairfield.”
“Countless events and personalities helped bring Fairfield to where it is today, but Wilson looms large as the major influence of his time. Wilson’s efforts and visions, more than those of any mayor, any council member or any other citizen have shaped Fairfield’s modern era,” the article said.
Among the numerous city-defining sites that bear B. Gale Wilson’s fingerprints are the Fairfield Civic Center complex, Rockville Hills Regional Park, the Anheuser-Busch factory and Solano Town Center mall.
Byron Gale Wilson was born July 6, 1929, on a kitchen table in a log cabin in Tridell, Utah. His family moved to Roosevelt, Utah, when he was 4 years old, where they ran a 160-acre farm.
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilson went to college at Brigham Young University, but after his freshman year was called to go on a mission trip to Ontario, Canada. There he served as a district president and learned the art of leadership.
“It gave me a taste for management. I was responsible if a widow’s house burned down – and that happened once,” Wilson said. “I had to be Johnny-on-the-spot. I had a checkbook in the name of the church. I learned to solve people’s problems.”
After the mission trip, Wilson finished his schooling at BYU and the University of Southern California. He was hired as the assistant city manager in Buena Park in Orange County and worked there for a year and a half.
Fairfield was searching in 1956 for a new city manager as their very first one had resigned after only two years. Then-Fairfield Mayor Chris Santaella hired Wilson, who, at only 26 years of age, became the youngest city manager in the country.
One of the most remarkable and impactful accomplishments that Wilson achieved, with others, was more than doubling the size of Fairfield and boosting its population by approximately 60 percent.
In just 26 days.
As early as 1960, there was talk of the city of Fairfield annexing Travis Air Force Base. If it could be pulled off, it would be a win-win for the city and for the base.
“Certain funds were available to cities and counties on a per capita basis. So the question became, how do we annex Travis?” Wilson said.
The annexation was possible because of a government code that allowed cities to initiate annexation proceedings of federal territory if the affected agency gave its consent. Negotiations between the city and the base began in earnest in 1965.
The annexation process was one of several times Wilson made sure the groundwork was properly laid and then kicked the door down when opportunity knocked.
Wilson and then-Fairfield Mayor Arne Digerud embarked on a whirlwind trip March 1, 1966, to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to get final Air Force approval. Three days later, they were back in town with the OK.
The newspaper said, “The speed with which they were able to carry their application through higher governmental echelons was termed ‘fantastic’ by veteran observers of Pentagon affairs.”
They presented it to the Fairfield City Council at a noon meeting March 4, where it passed unanimously.
Next it had to be presented to the Local Agency Formation Commission of Solano County, where there was a 15-day waiting period. If sanctioned by theLAFC, it would then be presented to the Solano County Board of Supervisors, who would hold a public hearing then vote on it. Finally it would have to be certified by the California secretary of state.
Potential snags were everywhere and time was of the essence.
If they managed to clear all necessary hurdles by April 1, Fairfield would receive approximately $100,000 (almost $800,000 in 2018) more in motor vehicle license fees. They were apportioned based on the population of California cities on that date.
Two days before the deadline, on March 30, 1966, the proposal was certified by the California secretary of state.
The Travis annexation increased Fairfield’s population from 28,000 to 44,000 and more than doubled its acreage (from 4,264 to 9,096).
Fifty-two years later, Travis Air Force Base is still the largest employer in Solano County.
Locally, B. Gale Wilson K-8 School and B. Gale Wilson Boulevard (in front of NorthBay Healthcare) both honor the longtime former Fairfield City Manager who served from 1956 to 1988. His philosophy then was, “If there’s going to be a parade, better to lead it than to be run over by it.”
Wilson’s numerous accomplishments that helped sculpt a small farming community into a modern Bay Area city are too many to list, but here are a few touchstones:
FAIRFIELD CIVIC CENTER – DEDICATED 1971
One of Wilson’s first moves as city manager was to arrange for Fairfield to purchase Waterman Park, a federal housing project that had been erected in the 1940s for military personnel. The funds that Waterman Park residents subsequently paid the city for rent for decades helped fund the project that eventually took its place, the Fairfield Civic Center.
By the late 1960s, Waterman Park was less-than-optimal housing.
“The city council meetings were held in an administrative building there and there was a big crack in the cement floor. I had to be careful that my chair didn’t get stuck in it,” Wilson said.
The city held an architectural contest in 1967 and the winning design, by Robert Hawley, became the 33-acre civic center complex featuring a figure-eight pond with a fountain.
Wilson described the process as going from the “worst to the best.”
ROCKVILLE HILLS REGIONAL PARK – PURCHASED 1966
In 1966, Wilson saw a subdivision map of Rockville Hills with a proposed 300 housing units to be built there. To stop the encroachment and preserve the 383 acres from development, the city bought the land. It became upper Solano County’s first large recreation area.
“We had to take bold action. I saw no other way to stop it and stop it with finality,” Wilson said. “I think the vision of that project has blessed the whole area.”
ANHEUSER-BUSCH FACTORY – OPENED 1977
Part of the job of a city manager was to schmooze potential investors. In the early 1970s, Budweiser bigwig August Anheuser Busch came to town, as the beer company was deciding whether to build a brewery in Fairfield. Wilson took Busch and the mayor to dinner at one of Fairfield’s then-fanciest restaurants.
“The next day the mayor called and said the restaurant owner was complaining because I didn’t leave a tip,” Wilson said. “The mayor asked me why I hadn’t. I said I didn’t leave a tip because I was sitting next to August A. Busch and I looked over and noticed that in the middle of his soup was a big fat fly. It’s a great story . . . to forget.”
Despite the dining faux pas, Busch still brought a Budweiser brewery to Fairfield.
SOLANO MALL – OPENED 1981
JCPenney was always to be the anchor for a proposed Fairfield regional mall. In 1966, a sign was erected on Pennsylvania Avenue and Travis Boulevard announcing the mall and JCPenney’s impending move there from downtown.
That took six years.
Then another nine years for the mall to open.
The delay wasn’t for a lack of effort. It came down to one of Wilson’s core beliefs and community goals of doing the job right. In negotiations with mall developer Ernest Hahn, Wilson frowned on the tininess of the mall Hahn proposed and then repeatedly asked him if he liked to make money. When Hahn replied “Of course,” then Wilson said to do the job right.
Wilson sweetened the deal by offering concessions – among them, moving K.I. Jones Elementary school and paying for other improvements by forming a redevelopment area.
“Then the dramatic moment happened that I’ll never forget. (Hahn) pointed his finger at the architect who was looking at those miserable plans and said three words: “burn those plans!”’ Wilson said.
In 1988, B. Gale Wilson received an award from the International City Management Association for “outstanding contributions to the art and science of local management.” Annually, the award goes to just three of the organization’s 8,000 members.
Wilson now lives in the Sacramento area and, along with daughter Alta (one of his 10 children), visited the Fairfield Civic Center recently to be interviewed, meet city staff and view his old Civic Center corner office – currently enjoyed by City Manager David White.
Now 89 years old, Wilson looked down from the fourth floor onto the fountain, ducks and geese and said, “That is a beautiful view. I think we did some things right.”