George Boardman: Shopping centers aren’t the kind of economic development the county needs |

George Boardman: Shopping centers aren’t the kind of economic development the county needs

George Boardman

Observations from the center stripe: Deal edition

I HAVE a deal for whoever put up those “No on I” signs near LOP: I’ll pay your fire tax increase if you pay the increase in my homeowners’ insurance I’ll probably get if the measure fails again … A LOCAL pot attorney’s endorsement of Supervisor Heidi Hall may or may not help her reelection bid … A SURVEY reveals that 18% of Californians planning to vote in the primary election won’t fill out their ballots until the last three days before March 3, one reason we’ll have a slow count … IF YOU have a valid passport and your driver’s license expires after Oct. 1, there’s no need to go through the DMV grinder before then to get your Real ID license. Just make sure you have your passport with you if you fly …

It says something about the leadership of Nevada County when the only people with an economic development plan are some idealistic youth and their supporters operating under the banner of the Sunrise Movement.

Granted, their plan is the “Green New Deal,” a pie-in-the-sky proposal that is touted as “an economic vision for the 21st century” that will solve all the ills of America’s post-modern economy. The movement is aimed at the young and idealistic who will temper their views as they confront the realities of the real world.

But at least they have a vision, which is more than you can say for our elected leaders and those seeking office in the upcoming election. Practically every candidate who has appeared at the League of Women Voters recent forums proclaimed their support for economic development, but tended to mumble when it came to specifics.

The most sustained mumbling comes from the county Board of Supervisors, which until recently considered economic development a second-tier priority. Now, we are told, economic development has moved to the No. 4 spot on the list of priorities. We’re going to have to wait for the start of the next fiscal year in July to see if this newfound enthusiasm reflected in the county’s operations, but it’s a start.

Where are the jobs that pay a living wage and offer a meaningful career path?

(As an aside, I always find it amusing that the board’s top priority is to “maintain the county’s fiscal stability and core services.” People assume you’re going to do that when they elect you to office, just like they expect you won’t steal. Why is it necessary to state the obvious?)

Shopping center development is about the only thing resembling economic development we’ve seen around here lately, and their developers are afflicted by busy-bodies who want to rewrite the laws of economics. Some cynics — I’ll raise my hand here — think this is just a ploy by the NIMBYs to try to stop development.

The latest project to go on the torture rack is the Dorsey Marketplace in Grass Valley, a 28.6-acre mixed use development that hasn’t turned a spade of dirt in the five years since it was proposed. Much of that time has been spent on deciding the shape of the development: More retail or more housing?

The city’s planning commission and design review committee opted for a plan that calls for a 172-unit apartment complex and over 100,000 square feet for commercial and community use. Now some people, led by Mayor Lisa Swarthout, want a say in what kind of retail the shopping center will have.

“I’ve had a lot of concerns about the retail on this project since the very beginning of it,” she said at a recent council meeting. “We want to make sure that whatever retail comes in will complement our existing retail and not cannibalize our existing shopping centers. If you look at the history of Grass Valley, that’s what happened.”

Toward that end, the city is researching ways to limit what businesses set up shop in the center, a goal of some community members. But there’s a false conceit at work here: Businesses are clamoring to come to our community.

The reality is quite different. Businesses people would love to see in the community are looking for population densities and a level of economic prosperity we don’t have. That’s why Grass Valley has Kmart and JCPenney — two failing chains that may be out of business before the first store opens at Dorsey Marketplace — instead of Target and Trader Joe’s.

Then there’s that process people who claim to be capitalists don’t really like: The creative destruction that dismantles the old to make way for the new and innovative. Sometimes that means longtime, even beloved, retailers that become irrelevant.

Limiting the businesses that can go into Dorsey Marketplace at a time when brick-and-mortar retailers are exceptionally careful about opening new stores could very well doom the development, which would only satisfy the people who would prefer to have a draw bridge at the Bear River.

But Swarthout raised a valid concern when she pointed to the Pine Creek Shopping Center and the Higgins Marketplace as examples of developments that cannibalized existing facilities. “We were trading sales tax dollars from one location to another,” she said.

Pine Creek was before my time, but I get a good look at the construction of Higgins every time I return from a trip to Auburn. Higgins, a pet project of Supervisor Ed Scofield (he says it’s about the jobs, not the tax revenue), has been plagued by a lawsuit and other delays over the last decade.

The original anchor tenant was going to be a Bel Air market, but that deal fell apart when the economy went in the tank and Bel Air objected to the restrictions put on the sign it could erect. Now the anchor tenant is Holiday Market, which will move from its current location on Combie Road, leaving the Lake Center shopping center more than half empty. That’s not growth.

Disputes over the shape of retail developments obscure our lack of the type of development that can really grow our economy and increase prosperity. Most retail jobs are barely a step up the economic food chain from the dead-end jobs tourism offers.

Where are the jobs that pay a living wage and offer a meaningful career path? That’s the real issue the supervisors will have to address if they are really serious about economic development.

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

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