Hey, Sacramento, listen up. The rural counties are part of California and we have needs, concerns and issues that need to be addressed.
That was the message delivered Thursday at the Redwood Coast Regional Forum held at the River Lodge in Fortuna – a beautiful pastoral backdrop to the conversation.
Hosted by Redwood Coast Rural Action (RCRA), the session was opened by Humboldt County Supervisor Clif Clendenen who said rural counties rarely get a voice and “we need to send a clear message to Sacramento on how the state can support rural regions.”
From Mendocino County, Art Harwood, regional steward of MendoFutures, emphasized the importance of regions working together. He said MendoFutures takes the work of RCRA to the county level to connect people working to facilitate conversations on the local level.
Dawn Elsbree, Headwaters Fund coordinator, presented results of her interviews with more than 100 business and community leaders, known as the Humboldt 100. She said that 70 percent of those interviewed believed that Humboldt County is doing better than other rural economies. Eighteen percent believed that the county doing the same and 12 percent felt it was worse off.”
Elsbree said the “vast majority thought we should be supporting our entrepreneurs – both the successful companies already here and new start-ups.”
“The most frequently cited supports requested were: pre-permitted land for business development, industrial parks, incubators, in particular a high-tech one, access to low-interest capital and mentorship programs for businesses,” Elsbree said.
Elsbree also said the survey results indicated strong support for strengthening ties between Humboldt State University and the local business community.
“The presence of HSU is critical in setting us apart from other rural economies and gives us advantages in terms of accessing creative talent and research capabilities. Many of our successful local businesses were created by HSU graduates who long for a way to stay in the area,” said Elsbree.
Elsbree said respondents also suggested that the Redwood Coast region should be focusing our economic development efforts on our unique natural resources. They identified timber, aquaculture, specialty agriculture, beef, biomass and biofuels, fishing, dairy, water, and gravel, sand and granite mining and exporting.
The respondents listed five primary barriers to economic development in the region: transportation, regulation and permitting, political climate, land use and workforce.
Jacqueline R. Debets, economic development coordinator for Humboldt County, said too many people are immersed in the old story/new story. “The old story is dead fish and dead trees, there are no jobs, our children are leaving and we are becoming a retirement community” Debets said. The new story, which she shares in her North Coast Prosperity blog, is innovation and entrepreneurship.
“We need a story about where we’re going,” Debets said. “Youth wants to be part of a place that is becoming.”
She identified six industries as targets of opportunity: diversified health care, building and systems construction and maintenance, specialty food, flowers and beverages, investment support services, management and innovation services, and niche manufacturing.
What is needed, Debets said, is an infrastructure of connectivity, capital flow, less regulatory complexity, a workforce prepared for local needs, support for entrepreneurism, and continuation of the great quality of life.
Participants weighed in with their own priorities for regional and state actions and then stepped up to represent the rural and North Coast perspective at the California Economic Summit to be held May 11 in Santa Clara.
Dave Rosso is a Eureka-based journalist.
Photo Credit: Kathrine Shea Ortiz via Twitter