For more than a century a cement plant defined the small, coastal community of Davenport. In fact, the town just north of Santa Cruz was built to house its workers. Now seven years after the plant shutdown, residents are again looking to the plant to define their town.
The CEMEX cement plant has always loomed large over Davenport. Today, the shuttered factory is still the first thing you see when you drive in along Highway 1 - beige silos with a maze of rusting ladders and towering pipes. A chain link fence blocks off the entrance. It looks like its own city.
Alverda Orlando, 87, lived in Davenport during the plant’s heyday.
“It got kind of a bad reputation for being dusty, but it also was a wonderful little town to live in,” says Orlando.
It was so dusty that – “When the children went to school there was dust on the sidewalks so therefore they left their footprints,” Orlando says.
She and her longtime friend Bob Piwarzyk co-authored a book about the Davenport cement plant -- celebrating its centennial.
Standing together on a rural dirt road that has a clear view of the factory, they reminisce about the plant’s early days.
“It’s a very significant part of our coastal history,” Piwarzyk says.
It opened in 1906 to help rebuild San Francisco after the earthquake. Cement from the plant was also used to construct dry docks at Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal, and it helped build Davenport.
“The cement made here was used to build the Davenport Jail and the church and the Crocker Hospital and it is kind of a unifying thing. The people who are living in town are working in the cement plant and the product is being used to build buildings here,” says Piwarzyk.
Overtime, the plant modernized and needed fewer workers. Then the economy tanked and the plant closed in 2010.
With the noise and dust gone, Davenport started to change in other ways. Tourists started rolling in to places like Whale City Bakery -- a funky cafe located on the edge of Davenport. Stephanie Raugust is co-owner.
“I see it, it has changed. Even these last four or five years… the increase of this traffic,” says Raugust.
Sipping coffee out of a big, blue mug, Rachael Spencer sees it too. She’s lived in the Davenport area for 24 years.
“I can honestly say that when that plant shut down, suddenly Davenport was no longer a funky cement town, it became fashionable,” says Spencer.
As Davenport has taken on this new identity of a tourist town, Spencer wonders –
“How do we maintain Davenport as a charming, wonderful community that serves visitors also, or do we become a visitor town that has a few leftover community people?”
For the answer, Davenport is again looking to the cement plant.
Santa Cruz County is currently developing a restoration and reuse plan. This includes rezoning the 100-plus acre property, which CEMEX still owns. Rezoning will determine how the plant can be repurposed.
“There are many, many ideas out there for what the future use could be. One of the most important things that we know will be a use is public access,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says. He represents Davenport.
Plans include public access to the new expansion of the California Coastal National Monument in Davenport’s backyard. Beyond that it will depend on who buys the property. Coonerty says residents’ ideas range from a research and development facility to an emergency services hub and space for education and art.
He says the end goal is a good tax base, jobs, and something that works for the community.
“That plant was a large taxpayer; it was a huge employer for good blue collar jobs. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replicate exactly what was there, but I think that there’s an exciting future,” Coonerty says.
Even after the county settles on a plan, CEMEX still has to clean-up the site and sell it. Leaving this town in flux, but forever tied to the cement plant.