George Boardman: Everybody talks about the local economy, but nobody does anything about it | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Everybody talks about the local economy, but nobody does anything about it

George Boardman
Columnist

Observations from the center stripe: Insulting edition

THE “INSULTING” intelligence briefing for members of Congress suggests the decision to kill Gen. Soleimani was a spur-of-the-moment event instead of the reasoned decision President Trump’s enablers want us to believe … SO TRUMP is now taking credit for the decline in the cancer death rate? I can’t wait until he cures the disease … ONE ADVANTAGE of releasing a video to explain a police shooting is that you don’t have to answer any uncomfortable questions from the media … I’M NOT sure I want to do business with a cruise line that uses Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” as background music for its TV ads … WHY DO broadcasters covering 49er home games show views of the San Francisco skyline instead of Santa Clara’s? ... WHY BOTHER?: The Houston Astros stole signs from their opponents during home games in 2017 and ‘18, but actually had a better road record those years …

It’s questionable if Mark Twain ever said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” but there’s no question a variation on the phrase could be used to describe economic development in Nevada County.

As usual, we’re doing a lot of talking. The county Board of Supervisors, apparently bereft of any good ideas in an area where they’re expected to provide leadership, issued a call earlier this month for the public’s views on economic development, what is important and how does it rank with other issues facing the county.

“We plan to share the results with the Board of Supervisors at their annual planning workshop in January as part of a broader presentation … on economic development,” according to Mali Dyck, assistant county CEO.

But that’s not all. The survey might “provide insights into what economic development related topics we want to ask citizens about” in the county’s second National Citizens Survey this spring, according to Dyck. Apparently the first survey didn’t provide enough insight.

The consequences of being an economic laggard are all around us.

The county has also been seeking comment on three proposals to spend a $225,000 County Last Mile Broadband Grant to bring broadband service to the underserved residents of the county, part of a patchwork approach to solving the county’s biggest infrastructure problem. If these proposals are any indication, it’s going to be a very expensive patch job.

Internet service provider Exwire is seeking $53,000 in funding to bring fixed wireless internet to about 100 customers in the Truckee area, a mere $5,300 per hookup. But that’s a bargain compared to Nevada County Fiber, which wants $223,889 to bring underground fiber optics to about 60 homes in the Red Dog/Banner Quaker Hill area during the project’s first phase. If that much money isn’t available, they’re willing to hook up 20 homes for $125,000.

The third proposal, which has the backing of the Nevada City Council, calls for the Northern Sierra Fiber Broadband Co-op to install underground broadband infrastructure to about 15 under-served businesses and community institutions in Nevada City. The co-op wants $25,000 to do the job.

Neither of the western Nevada County projects would be completed before mid-2021. The Sierra Business Council, which is running the program for the county, is expected to make its recommendation to county staff on Tuesday. A recommendation will go to the supervisors in the future.

This is separate from the long-delayed effort to bring high-speed internet to almost 2,000 homes along Highway 174, expected to be completed by Race Communications in May, and a recent federal grant of over $400,000 to Viasat to provide satellite-based internet service to just over 1,000 customers in the county for 10 years.

The only thing this patchwork approach guarantees is that customers are likely to pay premium prices for substandard service from a monopoly, a reality reinforced by a recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal.

Journal reporters analyzed information from more than 3,300 internet bills in all 50 states, and concluded that rural areas get slower broadband speeds even though they pay similar prices as their counterparts in urban areas, and broadband providers charge more in markets without competition. Good luck selling that to a business that’s considering relocating here.

This patchwork approach is typical of the county’s scattered initiatives in economic development. While nearby counties fund economic development offices, Nevada County is content to parcel out funds to the ineffective Economic Resource Council and local chambers of commerce to promote the low-pay tourism industry.

The county’s inability to keep pace with economic forces in the country has real-life consequences, as recent economic data and a series of events driven by economics illustrate. First up is a report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which showed that California led the nation in 2018 with a 4.1 percent increase in its gross domestic product, well above the national increase of 2.9 percent.

Nevada County trailed the state gain by 30 percent but managed to match the national increase of 2.9 percent. How did our neighboring counties perform? Placer was up 4.7 percent, Sierra gained an astounding 12.4 percent, and Yuba gained a subpar 1.2 percent, according to the bureau.

Economic growth was virtually nonexistent in 2017 and just 2.2 percent in 2016, which means the county’s GDP has grown an anemic 5 percent to $4.1 billion since 2015 in the middle of the nation’s largest economic expansion in decades.

The consequences of being an economic laggard are all around us. Our school districts are shrinking because families have to move elsewhere to find good paying jobs. Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital is operating on alarmingly thin margins because it doesn’t treat enough people with good health plans.

A recent weekend found United Way and the Interfaith Ministry distributing food to the needy, many of them the working poor. An estimated 35 percent of county residents struggle to get by, according to United Way, while education officials report that 43 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches.

Meanwhile at the fairgrounds the same weekend, an estimated 1,000 people received free medical treatment for problems they have to live with because they lack health insurance or can’t pay for treatment out of pocket. Then there’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, who started his state homeless tour in Grass Valley. Talk about something to be proud of!

Local elected officials try to put a positive spin on these events, lauding the generosity and big hearts of local residents. All true, but perhaps our leaders should spend more time reflecting on why these activities are necessary in the first place.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com.


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