George Boardman: Economic development deserves more attention at candidate forums
April 15, 2018
Supervisor Dan Miller and his challenger for District 3 supervisor, Hilary Hodge, will face off Thursday at the Rood Center, where they will respond to the standard list of questions with well rehearsed statements designed to project a vision without actually committing to anything.
At least a couple of the questions will involve economic growth and development, along with the usual headline grabbers like marijuana (Miller would rather not; Hodge is for it) and homelessness (everybody opposes it).
What we really need is a discussion devoted solely to the local economy because that is what is going to determine the future course of this county.
A robust economy with plenty of well-paying jobs will keep our children close to home, infuse the community with the spirit and energy only young adults can bring, and generate the tax revenue that will help solve our homelessness, infrastructure, and other problems.
But a robust economy also means growth and change for a community that tends to spend more time dwelling on the past than looking toward the future ...
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But a robust economy also means growth and change for a community that tends to spend more time dwelling on the past than looking toward the future, and a significant portion of the population would be happy with no change at all. That gives our elected officials a reason or an excuse (you decide) to focus on other issues. Alas, remaining stagnant is not an option.
People who like to dwell on the past seem to forget that a booming economy made this area a dynamic and compelling place in the 1800s. It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Nevada County was a key component of the state's economic engine. But like most parts of this country that derived its original prosperity from natural resources, we failed to diversify the economy. After first gold and then timber went bust, we became an economic backwater in the world's sixth largest economy.
Since then, we've become what I call a Blanche DuBois economy, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Our Gold Rush era downtowns and beautiful natural setting attract a lot of tourists, but tourism generates low-paying service jobs with few or no fringe benefits. As the locals like to say, that's the pine-cone tax you pay for moving up here unless you bring your own job with you. About the only growth industry we have is nonprofits.
People complain about the high cost of housing, our shrinking public school system, infrastructure shortcomings, and nuisance issues like homelessness, panhandling, and drugs. They bemoan the reality that their children go away to college and then never move back, but don't seem to make the connection between these issues and our somnolent local economy.
As a result, our elected leaders feel little pressure to make economic development a top-line issue. Economic development comes in last in the Board of Supervisors' current list of things to do, in the context of panhandling for state and federal dollars "to support board policy objectives including economic development … working with local and county organizations that benefit the economic development of our county is of equal importance," the board's list of top priorities states.
The county prefers to let others do the heavy lifting. While surrounding counties and nearby cities are investing in business development offices and Placer County has established a business resource center to help entrepreneurs get started and existing businesses grow, Nevada County's supervisors are content to prop up our service economy, dispensing patronage to the various Chambers of Commerce, and hope the Economic Resource Council can someday deliver on its lofty promises.
After the most recent executive director launched an initiative to secure a piece of the virtual reality technology market and then departed for a job at a bank, the ERC has been doing a lot of navel gazing, trying to figure out what it wants to be. With a board of 27 members including alternates, that may be difficult to do. It's not a good sign when five of the eight members of the executive committee hold elected and public sector jobs. Where are the business leaders?
A prime example of what this lack of leadership is costing us is broadband technology, or rather our lack thereof. Everybody agrees that we need high-speed communications if we're going to attract high paying jobs and make it possible for residents to telecommute. Like the weather, everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
That doesn't mean our leaders don't want it. When discussing jobs and the local economy on his campaign website, Miller posits that "Broadband is essential for our area to attract business relocation possibilities. We are an underserved region, and telecommuting could be huge in our area with high speed Internet. We need to make broadband happen …"
Hodge is also onboard. "We need broadband for our entire community …," she states on her website. "Our young people and our economy cannot thrive unless we have access to the same tools that our urban and suburban neighbors have. High speed Internet and unrestricted access are essential for rural communities to remain competitive."
So how are we going to create this nirvana? Hundreds of small cities and rural counties around the country have grown tired waiting for the telecoms to meet their needs. Instead, they've created local public utilities to provide broadband service to their constituents that are often faster and cheaper than they can get from the telecoms.
Miller's solution? "… working with the private sector and with PUC grants, it is possible." Right now, that means Spiral Internet of Nevada City, which has been promising for eight years to build a gigabit 100 percent fiber optic Internet connection in Nevada County. To date, CEO John Paul has been adept at promising milestones he hasn't been able to meet, and raising money from the state and private investors.
Paul issued a press release that appeared on YubaNet in mid-March stating, "We're weeks away from how the project moves forward, and when we put some shovels into the ground. Stay tuned."
That would be a refreshing change from past promises he hasn't kept. But it's been a month now, and he still hasn't made the announcement. The self-proclaimed "Broadband Champion" is listed as a supporter of Hodge. Maybe she can deliver the message that it's past time for action. Nobody at the Rood Center seems to care.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at email@example.com.