Jessica Cejnar / Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 @ 4:09 p.m. / Community, Infrastructure, Local Government, Our Culture
Community Discusses Housing, Jobs, Tourism During Economic Strategy Workshop
Though major projects identified in a previous strategy aren’t yet finished, a handful of people began mapping out a new blueprint for Del Norte’s economic future on Wednesday.
At the first of two public meetings, Crescent City staff, Redwood Coast Transit Authority general manager Chuck Clarkson and local resident Valerie Starkey discussed the community’s challenges with housing, whether tourism is a sustainable economic driver, what role hemp and CBD products will play in local agriculture and how to help Del Norte businesses expand.
The ultimate goal is to create a five-year comprehensive economic development strategy for Del Norte County that could help the community seek U.S. Economic Development grant dollars, said Doug Svensson, president of Applied Development Economics, who led Wednesday’s meeting.
“It’s not a plan the city or county or harbor can sit and do by themselves,” Svensson said. “It’s important to have the whole community engaged. The idea is to build capacity so when we have the plan completed, there’s some momentum behind it.”
According to City Manager Eric Wier, the Del Norte Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy will include input from the city, county, harbor, local tribes and other community stakeholders. It comes as Crescent City pursues Proposition 68 dollars for a project at Beachfront Park and uses a $4 million Community Development Block Grant to make improvements to Front Street, which will be under construction in about a year, he said.
Del Norte’s previous comprehensive economic development strategy identified rebuilding the Crescent City Harbor following the 2011 tsunami; the new terminal at the Del Norte County Regional Airport; Crescent City’s wastewater treatment plan; and improved broadband access as major improvements the community needed.
Another project, the widening of U.S. 199 and 197 to allow for industry-standard trucks, was also identified in the previous strategy. However, that project has been tied up in litigation for several years.
Following the second public meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Crescent City Cultural Center, Svensson and his partners will draft an initial document and get input from people representing the housing sector, healthcare sector, city, county and nonprofits, Wier said.
There will be a third public meeting, potentially a joint meeting with the Crescent City Council, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and the Crescent City Harbor District, to finalize the document, Wier said.
“The harbor plays a vital role in the local economy,” he said. “If you’re a business owner or a community member or a tourist coming in, you’re not going to see jurisdictional boundaries.”
Before asking participants to outline Del Norte’s strengths and weaknesses, Svensson doled out a few statistics:
Compared to California’s per capita annual income in 2017 — about $32,000 to $33,000 — Del Norte’s per capita annual income in 2017 was about $25,000, Svensson said. Crescent City’s per-capita income is a bit lower, but has increased since 2010, he said.
Meanwhile, Del Norte County’s poverty rate was at 23 percent in 2017, while the state’s poverty rate was 15 percent, Svensson said. He said the state’s 2017 poverty rate hadn’t changed much since 2010. Poverty rates are higher in the city, though Svensson said there’s been some improvement.
In terms of jobs, Svensson said the tourism, health and education sectors have grown, while services, retail, distribution and trucking have lost jobs. Construction and forestry jobs have also experienced a comeback in the last few years due to “second-growth development,” Svensson said.
“California is experiencing the strongest economic booms in a generation and to some extent the rest of the country is also,” he said. “Is there a way that Del Norte County can participate in that trend more than what we’re seeing in these trends?”
Noting that Crescent City and Del Norte County is striving to grow its tourism sector, the city’s finance director, Linda Leaver, said tourism is dependent on the overall economy and asked how the community should prepare for the next recession.
Svensson said it’s not a good economic foundation to depend solely on tourism, but it does open up opportunities that didn’t exist before. In rural areas, he said, people who come for recreational experiences will return to locales they like, buy a place so they can come more often and, sometimes, stay and find a job.
“The initial input we got from a lot of businesses is they’re here because they like the lifestyle,” Svensson said. “There’s a lot to be said for that.”
However, preparing for the next recession means developing other business opportunities, Svensson said. One of those opportunities in Del Norte County might be diversifying its agriculture industry.
He noted there is a demand on processing space for cannabis and related products in the Bay Area. Svensson also mentioned second-growth logging and forest management for fire prevention is creating new business models Del Norte County can take advantage of.
However, when it came to Del Norte’s challenges, Svensson and his colleague Wes Ervin mentioned transportation.
According to Clarkson, for public transit, road construction isn’t much of an issue on RCT’s in-town routes. It’s more of an issue on long out-of-town routes in the winter months, he said.
What Clarkson said he’d love to see is an increase in RCT ridership. He noted that public transportation on the West Coast in general battles “our Oregon Trail DNA,” which is different than back east where it’s common for someone not to own a car. He also mentioned another constant challenge “we don’t talk about.”
“The economic demographic that rides our bus and other economic demographics not being comfortable in the bus with that demographic,” Clarkson said. “Hear what I’m not saying? That’s one of our constant challenges. We don’t talk about it for obvious reasons, but it is a reality in our business. I think if we can get beyond that mindset there would be an increase in ridership.”
Another challenge, Clarkson mentioned, is the difficulty to hire drivers. He said there are stringent requirements RCT has to abide by when it hires new employees.
“If we had a couple other major industries that were coming here that raised the cost of living, it would flow down to us,” Clarkson said. “Our cost of living would need to increase for my drivers to hire better drivers (I’d need) to have better wages to pay. It would help me being able to hire people who are going to stick with me who are going to take the job serious and be happy with it.”
Though Svensson mentioned tourism as a tool for drawing more businesses and workers to the area, Starkey said housing is extremely limited in Del Norte County. A local contractor has so many requests for work that he can’t hire enough people, she said.
Wier said there is a lack of rentals in Crescent City. One of the major apartment complexes, Seawood Village, has a waiting list that’s several months long, he said.
Svensson noted that a lack of housing is a statewide concerned and said people have begun to pass zoning laws that emphasizes flexibility and mixed use. Some new buildings have a mix of professional space, a small manufacturer such as a bakery or a coffee producer, and multi-family housing.
People have also begun to note that the number of vacation rentals has increased dramatically, Svensson said. This is good for tourism, but in a state with a housing shortage, it can be a problem.
Ervin, said some cities, when they discover how many Airbnb rentals are in their communities make sure they’re collecting transient occupancy taxes from those businesses. He also noted that other cities are incentivizing the development of accessory dwelling units, or “granny flats.”
“The state is allowing, by right, in any residential zone, (owners) to put a second home up to 1,200 square feet on any residential lot that’s already got a house on it,” Ervin said. “It encourages families and rentals in the back and things like that. It’s something to think about since you have so many single family homes.”
Applied Economic Development is still taking community input via an online survey. It’s primarily directed at businesses, but the public is welcome to chime in, he said.
According to Wier, the city will also complete a comprehensive development plan that incorporates components of the regional strategy. He said the city will use a $93,000 Community Development Block Grant to do that work.
“We’re really looking at taking advantage of the different districts,” Wier said. “It’s not a goal so much as it is this is actual action we’re going to take. It could be highway services, whatever the plan dictates should be the focus.”