If there's one thing that virtually everyone in Del Norte County agrees upon, it's that our local must be dramatically improved.
In an effort to reinvigorate the local economy, the Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce has tapped a world-famous development consultant. David Beurle, of Innovative Leadership Australia, is scheduled to arrive today and meet through Monday with several focus groups of local citizens and leaders. These meetings hopefully will lead to a redevelopment strategy that the county, city, rancherias, businesses and residents will cooperatively implement. This strategy would align our efforts so that the many public and private institutions involved in economic development have "their arrows pointing in the same direction," Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce President Chris Howard said.
Economy in crisis
There should be little doubt that our county's economy must be significantly improved.
Consider the numbers:
A full in one in five Del Norte residents live below the poverty line, according to the Center for Economic Development at California State University, Chico.
The Community Action Network's Standard Veneer Road food bank gave out 203 tons of food roughly two grocery bags full of food for every county resident in 2004.
A full 1 in 9 adults were jobless from 1990 to 2003. While the unemployment rate has improved somewhat since then, even as recently as December 2006, nearly 1 in 13 still could not find work.
Per capita income is a mere $20,534, hardly a livable wage for a family and well below the state's average.
Transfer payments such as disability insurance, Medicare, , Indian Affairs payments and veterans benefits made up 30.9 percent of total personal income in 2002, alarmingly rising from 22.2 percent just two years before. This means a large number of county residents are relying on a limited amount of dollars, largely from government, to make ends meet.
The result is a low standard of living for far too many county residents, a continuously sagging economy and underdeveloped business. The high poverty rate increases a families' vulnerability to becoming involved in crime, addictions to alcohol and drugs, and leads to a sense of hopelessness.
No going back
Some in the community believe that if not for state and federal restrictions on fishing and logging, accompanied by its massive purchase of land, that all would be better. Obviously, the state and federal government's ownership of land limits several kinds of private investments from being made in the county.
But the robust logging and fishing economies of the past are gone, and believing the local situation will improve once those industries return is wishful thinking. Neither the state nor the federal government is going to relinquish land so we may restart a logging industry or utilize the land for private investments. Meanwhile, the state likely will further restrict fishing in our waters within a few years by creating a marine protection area. If land sales and unrestricted fishing were allowed, significant events far beyond our control would have to reverse the nation's growing environmental consciousness.
In any case, these days, the fishing, timber and agriculture industries account for barely more than 4 percent of all jobs in the county. Indeed, local banking, insurance and real estate businesses in Del Norte County actually employ more people than do the fishing and timber industries. Should land and water suddenly become available for harvesting, growth of those industries would have to be stratospheric to make a great difference.
To make real and immediate economic progress, we need to look honestly and candidly at our community's future.
The simple fact is that our economy " lacks diversity, direction and strength," as Kim Schmidt, Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority director wrote in his first annual report from Oct. 2006. "The standard of living and overall quality of life in the county has suffered."
Calamitous events that have been out of our control shaped our economy during the past 45 years. A 1964 tsunami wiped out downtown, and concerns about the environment caused the collapse of the logging and fishing industries. While natural disaster assistance, federal buyouts of fishermen and subsidies to replace timber payments have helped buffer those losses, we've grown overdependent on state and federal aid to support our communities. As Schmidt noted in his report, "Del Norte County is currently not living up to its economic potential."
While events beyond our control may have placed us in our current position, we are not prisoner to outside forces. Despite all of the bad numbers, there is good reason to be hopeful that our economy can be turned around:
Total personal income and the county's average household income continue to rise, often by significant marks. This indicates that for many in the county particularly those who are employed paychecks have been getting larger.
Our unemployment does continue to decline. The California Development Department projected that by 2010 the jobless rate would fall to 6.4 percent; with almost three years to go before then, we're almost there.
Del Norte County saw a 36 percent increase in total taxable sales between 1990 and 2003, indicating that the residents who are garnering larger paychecks are spending their money here and that we're drawing money from visitors.
While the number of employees in several old industries has declined, employment in the finance, insurance, real estate and tourism sectors are up dramatically.
Even with the adversity we've faced, several business leaders in the community are adjusting to our new economic reality. They and their employees are thriving because of it.
If our community is to live up to is full economic potential higher employment, better paying jobs, more profitable businesses, stronger retail sales then all of us must accept the new economic reality as well. Further, we will need a comprehensive, coordinated vision for improving our economy so that it can stand on its own.
This means the county, city, rancherias, harbor, school district, businesses and civic organizations must collaborate as they've never done before on moving our economy forward.
Enter David Beurle, the Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce's consultant.
"David and his group Innovative Leadership Australia believe that the future economic prosperity in communities and regions is fundamentally linked to the local people's commitment, engagement and capacity," Howard said. "David has developed a holistic and integrated approach to working with regions and communities.David has found the key to forward progress was centered around unleashing the commitment of local people; ensuring they have the skills, tools and information to shape their future; and that they are able to create local structures and partnerships to ensure the community continues to work together in a powerful and collaborative manner."
We encourage local residents of all stripes to join the focus groups that Beurle will lead through this weekend. But giving one's opinion isn't enough. We urge all who participate to join this effort to make economic development and growth our No. 1 priority.
We're all in agreement that our local economy must be dramatically improved. Taking the next step of actually improving it is now in our hands.
Who is David Beurle?
David Beurle heads Innovative Leadership Australia, which provides consulting to local and regional communities in the United States and Australia. It favors innovative approaches to local and regional community economic development. In the United States, Beurle has worked with more than 50 communities and organizations. Among them is Oregon's Rural Development Initiatives, which assists small towns in growing their economies. Beurle's work often includes bold, large scale regional economic and community revitalization projects.
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