About 25 people came to the Office of Education conference room Thursday, Dec. 12, to share information, ideas and some gripes at a meeting of the Trinity County Chamber of Commerce.
Board President Kelli Gant said she came up with the idea for the meeting during a recent trip to Weaverville, N.C.
She asked that attendees and board members refrain from the often-discussed topics cannabis and tourism as economic accelerators.
“What we need to talk about is real economic development outside those two things,” Gant said. “Whether that’s how we get business to move in or how we get more people to move here and make us a bigger community? A lot of our store owners depend on local people buying in their stores and our local population is dwindling.”
She said the problem is not exclusive to Trinity County.
“Rural America is really, really struggling,” she said, noting that people leave small towns for many reasons, “and our story is their story.”
Attendees were asked, “what are the good stores and businesses in town and what are they doing right?” It was mentioned that Holiday Market, the mill and the county are likely the three largest employers in the county.
Weaverville State Farm Insurance Agent Kevin Cahill added that Tangle Blue is doing well and predicted that the proposed Trinity County Brewing Company is bound to do well once open.
Trinity Alps Golf Course was also cited as a business doing well, based on consistent hours, pricing and food.
Velocity Communications, owned by Board Treasurer Travis Finch, was also mentioned. Finch said that before opening, a feasibility study was done.
“I think a lot of people who get into business here don’t do their homework,” he said, “and because of that, they are destined to fail.”
Several in the room agreed that bringing faster internet to all of Trinity County could bring more tech-related business to the area. It was also noted that a Silicon Valley company is offering to pay $10,000 for remote workers to leave the Bay Area. The idea is that people can continue to work for the tech companies, while avoiding the high cost of living in the San Francisco area. The company, known as Mainstreet, says it hopes to create over a million Silicon Valley jobs in suburban and rural companies over the next decade. However, some felt that a lack of connectivity outside Weaverville would hinder such opportunities.
Finch noted that expanding local internet service through his company would mean going over some regulatory walls.
“I want to build it out,” he said, “but all the good mountaintops are owned by the Forest Service.”
Thrift Stores were another thriving business, which some said was because they fit the incomes of Trinity County and offer necessities one can’t find at “dollar” retailers.
It was noted that the Weaverville Hotel Emporium stops and retains a lot of business with its outdoor clothing rack. Others said racks, boxes, sandwich board signs and displays are discouraged by Caltrans, as they may block access to less able residents.
It was suggested that Weaverville might place signage, similar to that of Lewiston, which promotes its historic charm. As before, others said the state regulations for signs and requirements to create a historic district are tough to meet.
Noting the number of motorcyclists and sports car owners coming to the area, it was suggested that the county promote Highway 299 and other local two-lanes to residents of the Bay Area. However, the work recently completed on Buckhorn Pass may be immediately offset by other upcoming summer highway projects near Junction City and the slide area near Del Loma.
While some said the area needs another downtown restaurant and perhaps an ice cream shop, others claimed that restaurants are hard to open and renovating a closed one is even more difficult.
“We have this lack of amenities that people look for when they move to a community,” Gant said, of educational opportunities and evening activities, “so we have that hanging over us.” It was said that people have tried to offer classes, such as cooking and arts, but lack of enrollment kept them from surviving.
Growth vs. red tape
A recurring theme of the meeting was a sentiment that local and state bureaucracy seems to work against new business development. Several people said their own business development had been roadblocked, in various ways by excessive governmental requirements. While some said local developers are being burdened with county permitting and engineering costs unrelated to their projects, others said the state’s requirements have been their biggest obstacles to growth and success.
Some said reduced staff at County Planning and Building offices compound those issues, while others praised the work of Planning Director Kim Hunter, who has held the position since July.
Cahill said when he arrived in the mid-1980s, a plan was in place to create a development near Weaverville, and that 80 home pads had been cleared. He said that due to a transportation requirement to create a turnout lane on Highway 299, the project became “dead in the water.” Cahill questioned what it would take to revive the project.
It was said that a building boom is happening in Trinity County, mostly when it comes to greenhouses and single family residences in the hills.
A vision together
When it was suggested that the county needs to come up with a unified vision for local commerce, Gant said that had been done to death.
“When Travis and I met, it was on the Last General Plan update, when we had this committee of 15 people,” she said. “The first thing they asked us to do was come up with a vision of what Trinity County could be. It took forever and it never happened. Everybody in this county has a different vision. There are those who want to leave it the way it is and there are people who really want to build it up, there are people who want to just stabilize it to keep us from going downhill. In that nine months when we were meeting a lot, we could not strike a paragraph that everybody agreed on.” She said each community in the county has a community plan in process but combining those into a general plan update could be a decade-long project. Some said lasting change will take even longer to accomplish.
Margo Gray, owner of Trinity Alps resort, offered advice she’d received, which seemed to resonate with the crowd.
“Before you invite people over, you have to get your house in order,” she said. “Maybe that’s one of the top things we need to do. We need to clean up our house and fix it up and make it look nice, inviting, warm and happy.”
Gant suggested the board look into federal opportunity zones which extend into Weaverville’s industrial park area, as well as the number of useable, available buildings in commercial zones.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, qualified Opportunity Zones were created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
“These zones are designed to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities throughout the country and U.S. possessions by providing tax benefits to investors who invest eligible capital into these communities,” the IRS website states.
It was suggested that Trinity County, particularly Weaverville, needs more lodging providers to keep visitors here for multi-day events and music festivals.
Joseph Feinstein, founder and CEO of Trinity Cymbals, said he would like to open a small foundry and that he could employ or bring in people who would help make the area more of a music destination, and organize local music festivals.
He said he would need a larger building and partners to complete the project.
Regarding her trip to North Carolina, Gant noted several aspects in common, including a state highway running through town.
“One thing I noticed is that everyone I talked to couldn’t say enough how wonderful their city was,” she said. “I heard not a negative word until I actually poked them and [asked] what is wrong. Everyone was up and everyone was positive. I don’t hear that in Trinity County.”
She said instead she hears locals talk about how Trinity County “used to be” safe, wonderful and great.
“Getting back to what Margo said about getting your house in order, part of that is changing our attitude to be a little more positive,” Gant said, noting differences in income and demographic numbers. She also noted that almost all places toured in North Carolina offered free admission or discounts to military veterans and first responders. She said towns there were welcoming and hospitable.
“There are little things that cost zero money that we can do, just to be a cooler place. It makes you come back,” she said.
Other discussions centered around broadband access, housing, health care, manufacturing ideas and occasionally veered into aspects of tourism and cannabis.
Future board meetings will feature presentations and conversation with local leaders, developers and updates on researched topics.
The next meeting will take place Jan. 9 in the Trinity County Office of Education conference room.