RIO VISTA -- The peak of the economic downturn saw this Delta city's administrative employees pitching in to scrub down City Hall restrooms and empty trash cans, eager to do whatever it took to stave off further layoffs or furloughs.
Times have changed. Last year, the population of the Solano County community north of Antioch grew by 3.9 percent, to 7,934 residents, ranking it as the eighth fastest-growing city in California, according to the state's Department of Finance.
Now Rio Vista, led by a new city manager focused on balancing the budget and stabilizing civic services, is looking toward a rebound not only in the recovering housing market but also in its retail and commercial growth.
The numbers themselves may underwhelm: Rio Vista's nearly 4 percent growth consisted of just 298 new residents.
But it's a marked shift for a city that first lost population at the peak of the recession, and then gained only 276 new residents during the three years between 2010 and 2013.
All of 2013's population growth can be attributed to the continued expansion of Rio Vista's active retirement community, Trilogy, which added about 130 homes last year, according to City Manager Tim Chapa.
Chapa is optimistic that the growth levels will persist, with Trilogy builder Shea Homes expected to add another 150 houses there every year at least through 2016.
"(Last year) was a rebound year for us, and this year we're continuing to have a good year," said Jason Enos, general manager at Trilogy. Still, he added, sales are "nowhere near where they were before the downturn."
At the housing market's peak in 2006, Trilogy built as many as 216 homes; by 2008, that number had sunk to 79.
Enos said the continued affordability of communities such as Rio Vista on the outskirts of the Bay Area and Sacramento, where home prices have not quite returned to pre-downturn highs, is part of what appeals to baby boomers and retirees. Built-in amenities like a golf course also add to the draw.
Looking further out, Chapa said several other builders are in tentative planning phases for developments in and around Rio Vista, and the city could see thousands more housing starts in the next decade.
But with memories of city service cuts and bankruptcy talks still fresh, officials are approaching economic development with extreme caution.
The 2012 passage of the three-quarter-cent Measure O sales tax increase gave the city some breathing room to balance its 2013-14 budget at $5.2 million, with $579,000 in reserves.
The 2014-15 budget, now in a draft stage, will be balanced, Chapa said, with an eye toward dedicating Measure O revenues -- which have a five-year sunset --toward one-time expenditures and not ongoing costs such as employee salaries.
"We do need to be responsible in how we develop our budgets this year and the next three and four years," Chapa said.
Mayor Norman Richardson, a former planning commission member, said the projected continued growth is also an incentive for Rio Vista to keep pace with additional city services, retail and leisure options.
Enter RioVision, an enthusiastic group of volunteers and local businesses that in recent months took on the task of prioritizing and pursuing viable economic development goals for Rio Vista.
The group's work is based on a recently completed plan by the American Institute of Architects' Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team, planning professionals who worked with the city's zoning documents to define areas for future economic growth.
So far, RioVision is focusing on attracting new retail, rehabbing parts of Rio Vista's core downtown area and highlighting the city's waterfront setting. A project to extend the waterfront promenade is first on the list, Richardson said, with work beginning as soon as October.
"I just knew that with guidance, which we're getting, and energy, which we're getting, we'd be there," Richardson said.
Richardson said other future redevelopment sites could include a business park project that is now being vetted by the planning commission, and a parcel near the municipal airport that had once been slated for industrial use.
But he added that any development spending will have to be carefully allocated, and securing grant funding will be crucial.
"We're growing carefully," Richardson said. "But we're growing."
Karen Smith, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, said a few once-vacant businesses have been scooped up by new tenants but that there are still some empty storefronts, and she wouldn't herald a retail boom just yet.
"I think in Rio Vista right now, the housing market is the booming market," Smith said. "It's slowly coming back in the downtown area, but we're still waiting for things to get a little bit better."