Jeff Pelline: Seeing the Sierra economic glass as half full |

Jeff Pelline: Seeing the Sierra economic glass as half full

We all know the Sierra is a nice place to visit, but do we want to live here?

A sobering report released this week outlines the many significant challenges that we face as residents.

“The Sierra Nevada region is under considerable pressure to change because of population increases,” according to “The State of the Sierra,” written by the Sierra Business Council, a nonprofit association of more than 700 businesses. “The rapidly growing population throughout much of the region has acted as a catalyst for a host of challenges – housing needs, land use changes and community infrastructure needs – facing the residents of the Sierra Nevada.”

Some of the findings:

• The region’s population is expected to exceed 1 million by 2020, nearly double the population from 1990.

• At the same time, the earnings per job in the Sierra are 25 percent to 40 percent lower than the California average.

• The Sierra Nevada’s population is aging faster than that of the rest of the state without an offsetting increase of children and young adults.

• Housing prices more than doubled from 1997 to 2003 – though the more recent slowdown has dampened the steep runup. Second homes account for 15 percent of housing units, compared with a state average of only 2 percent.

• Rising home prices and the surge of second homes is forcing middle-income earners and families out of the region. “Without a wide range of housing options, the income gap among Sierra Nevada residents will continue to grow,” the report said.

Here’s one that stuck with me:

“Decreases in school enrollment and in the number of young families living in the Sierra Nevada suggest an element of instability in the region’s wealth: The education of future generations is threatened by diminished public funding and a corresponding decline in the quality of education.”

Sound familiar? It should. Nevada County is one of the 25 counties included in the region.

You’ve been reading a lot of articles about the challenges in our paper (a recent column I wrote, “Is California headed for a train wreck?”, for example), as well as expressing it yourself in letters, “Other Voices” columns and by telephone. Many of you also have been “suffering silently,” as it were.

The good news, however, is that if we’re willing to work together and not sweep all the problems under the rug – a bad habit around here – we can turn this around.

The “State of the Sierra” report does a good job of outlining the lure of our region, including its excellent quality of life and unique traits.

Among them:

• A well-educated resident population, many with college degrees, “provides an inviting workforce” for potential businesses.

• The potential to boost energy by using the region’s surplus of woody biomass is high.

• The region’s tourism industry is a healthy business.

“The Sierra Nevada has an excellent opportunity to promote a diverse, creative and enduring economy that complements and enhances the Sierra’s social and natural wealth,” the report said.

You’ve read articles about this too in our paper. Just this week, for example, we wrote again about tech-firm 2Wire’s expansion at the Nevada City Tech Center. As Mayor Steve Cottrell put it: “It’s the next step in the evolution of the community.”

As we’ve said before, projects such as the Nevada City Tech Center can be a catalyst for future business growth in our community – a key to our future. 2Wire is a broadband services company that is growing at a fast pace. It makes the computer modem our family uses with our AT&T broadband service. 2Wire is a major supplier to AT&T.

The Sierra report also points out that the expansion of broadband opens up enormous opportunities for rural areas such as ours, from telecommuting to starting small businesses. As you know, the broadband rollout in our community has been slower than expected, but some progress has been made recently.

On another front, soon we will be publishing a major story about the potential for biomass in the Sierra. Our sister paper in Truckee, The Sierra Sun, wrote a good one recently (“Evergreen energy” at article/ 20070615/NEWS/ 70615001).

To help build our economy, the report also points out the need to “shop local” – another theme covered in our paper and in your letters and comments to us.

“A buy local campaign has several distinctive goals: build strong communities, create vibrant and diverse economies and promote a healthier environment,” the report said. “Not all purchasing decisions can practically be made locally, but buying even 10 percent more local goods and services can produce significant economic, social and environmental benefits in our community.”

As you can see, if we put our collective heads together, even on a grass roots basis, we can tackle many of the problems facing our community and the rest of the Sierra. We also will count on our public- and private-sector leadership to candidly define the challenges (not sweep them under the rug) and attack them head-on. I look forward to the collaborative effort.

The report, which takes time to download because of numerous photos, can be found at share/dsweb/Get/Document-90620/Samelson _report3.pdf.


Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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