Photo courtesy of Garberville
Town Square Committee
story and photos by GEORGE RINGWALD
SHERMAN HENSELL, A feisty 86-year-old, recalls that there was once a move to incorporate Garberville as a city. "I fought [it like] hell, and I still will!" he asserts. "We just didn't have the tax base to justify it."
Raise the question today with other residents of the southern Humboldt town, and you'll get pretty much the same answer. Rip Kirby, [photo at left] for instance, publisher of The Independent, one of the town's two free newspapers (Life & Times is the other), says: "It's too expensive to operate a government. We pay taxes and expect the county to provide services. If we incorporate, then we've got to have our own police force, fire department and all that. Garberville has just never had the income to do that."
Hensell, who moved here with his wife Amy in 1942, over the years ran a succession of profitable businesses, from a car repair shop to a furniture store. He still owns the property on which the Chautauqua Natural Foods store is located.
He likes to tell you: "When we moved here there were as many as 29 sawmills in our trading area, and seven or eight out of Thorn (as he calls Whitethorn, 18 miles up the road from Garberville). But they're all gone, and now we depend pretty much on the tourists."
That, of course, is the story up and down the North Coast. The recent closure of the pulp mill in Ft. Bragg, combined with the opening last month of Big River State Park south of Mendocino, makes that area's identity as a tourist destination clearer than ever. Eureka, too, is in the process of recasting itself, as evidenced by Old Town and the on-going boardwalk project.
The transformation of Garberville from little more than a highway stop in a region dominated by sawmills to a tourist and recreation hub has been underway for some time and shows no signs of abating. At the same time, the town is still small and relatively remote, so limited economic opportunity continues to act as a brake.
`Pot' lucks and nonprofits
Perhaps more than any other community in the North Coast region, Garberville is influenced by "the underground economy," as one local puts it. You don't have to spell it out.
The Independent's Kirby notes that the region celebrated its annual Hemp Fest on Nov. 10. Garberville, after all, figures as one of the major players in what is known as the Emerald Triangle of Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
"They used to have a sign in front of the Branding Iron bar, which said, `Harvest Ball -- Pot Luck,'" Kirby recalls. "A great deal of money comes in because of the harvest."
Nobody bothers to hide it. You can find ads in the local papers, for instance, by Americans for Safe Access Medical Marijuana Legal Integrity Campaign. A recent squib in The Independent announced that the Mateel Community Center in Redway (two miles up the road from Garberville) was holding its 13 th annual Southern Humboldt Hemp Fest. People were invited to "shop for hempen holiday gifts and share a `pot luck' dish."
Janis Tillery, [photo at right] in her sixth year as executive director of the Garberville-Redway Area Chamber of Commerce, tells me: "When I first came here [in 1995], I was surprised that it was unincorporated and tucked away. The other thing that was even more surprising is that there are so many nonprofits in southern Humboldt. We're not really a very wealthy area, and there are fund-raisers all the time."
Jared Rossman, [photo at left] a member of the nonprofit Garberville Town Square Committee (more about this later), says: "Most of the major institutions that got started here over the last 20 years have been 501C3 nonprofits -- the IRS designation for a tax deductible charitable organization. Redwoods Rural Health Center, KMUD radio station, the Mateel Community Center all got started that way."
"Nonprofit" doesn't necessarily mean everybody's going broke here. Syd Lehman, Chamber of Commerce president and a prominent real estate operator in town, notes: "There's a listing right now in Benbow [just down the hill from Garberville] for a very nice house on the golf course, and they're asking over a million dollars." There is, he adds, "a continuing demand" for properties.
Tillery reports that there are "at least half a dozen new businesses" in Garberville this year. She says, "We always love to see little businesses that stay the course."
A woman of lively wit and humor, as well as a walking compendium of local lore, Tillery remarks: "I have a friend who says you can do anything you want in Garberville, and everybody will totally accept you. `The only thing is, we get to talk about you.' You can reinvent yourself daily, but expect to be talked about."
She laughs and says, "That's kind of a nice way to look at your life."
Actually, Garberville almost lost her. She didn't have a job and didn't know anybody when she arrived in town, so she thought about settling in Arcata.
"But I had this sort of cosmic experience in the redwoods," she relates, "so I wanted to be here. It sounds really goofy, but I think a lot of people here have something like that happen to them."
Garberville is not without its problems.
As Tillery tells it: "Even though we're on Highway 101, it feels even more remote more than it is, because there's no public transportation -- no taxi cabs, no buses, no rental cars. You have to have a car or hitchhike.
"This is a remote area of Humboldt County, remote from Eureka, and we try to develop a good working relationship with the county commissioners, and not be whiny about southern Humboldt all the time being a stepchild."
Still, one does hear about the "country cousins" of SoHum -- as southern Humboldt is sometimes called.
At one point, Tillery recalls, there was a proposal for a MAC -- a Municipal Advisory Commission that would consult with the county supervisors, but it didn't pass.
"And years before I was here," she goes on, "there was a proposal to create another county -- Sequoia County, and that didn't pass. Garberville and Redway each have a population of about 1,400. That's not many people to take on a tax burden."
Given that she's a woman with a cosmic experience, one is not surprised to see a Buddha scroll on the wall behind her desk.
"That's from a past life," she confides. "I lived on a sailboat for almost six years, and sailed most of the way around the world when I was in my 20s and 30s. I was married then. And I got that [the Buddha image] in Thailand."
"You sailed around the world?!" I ask, and she says, "Uh-huh, on a 75-foot yacht, the Sirocco, that used to belong to Errol Flynn."
One Garberville facility that got a big lift with the passage of a parcel tax vote last June was the financially troubled Jerold Phelps Community Hospital. The first payment comes in January, according to The Independent's Kirby -- "and once that kicks in, it'll really settle the problem."
The year's news, however, was not good for Southern Humboldt Unified School District. Another parcel tax vote on Nov. 5, came out with a 56 percent approval, well short of the required two-thirds.
"An unfortunate bit of timing," notes Kirby. "People were just getting their tax bills, and they faced a parcel tax for the schools. It was too much."
It was an obvious disappointment, said Cliff Anderson, [photo at left] superintendent of the school district.
"We were looking at that as some help in stabilizing our educational programs," Anderson said. "With the declining enrollment we've faced, we're having to make year after year reductions in the operating budget. Stability would have been nice."
Anderson, who was himself a graduate of South Fork High School in Miranda, started working for the district in 1980, and has been superintendent since 1993. The school district, he notes, covers about 745 square miles -- "equivalent to about half the size of the state of Rhode Island."
How to cope with the school parcel tax failure?
"We're going to be looking at making further reductions, possibly further consolidation of our school programs, maybe larger class sizes than we were used to running in the past," Anderson said. "Not quite as many educational programs as we had, perhaps cutbacks in some programs at the high school.
"Most of our teachers worked very, very hard to try to pass Measure A [the school parcel tax]," he continues. "But they're a strong lot. I don't think we're going to see a lot of folks wanting to say, `Let's just leave, because they [the voters] obviously don't care that much about education.'"
He adds, "We're not going to give up. We'll be looking at when's the next time we can get out and put another measure before the electorate. We'll try to find out what folks might be more receptive to, whether the amount was too much or the duration of the tax was too long. We owe it to our kids to keep trying."
On the economic outlook, Anderson commented: "It's pretty much a service-based economy. When you look at industries that supported a pretty good proportion of our community, you're looking at timber and the railroad. They've gone by the wayside."
Anderson mentions another worry for the future.
"In recent years," he said, "if we look at the census data from the last two Census Bureau reports, we see that the population in Southern Humboldt is getting older. The largest population group is 45 years and older. Times have changed."
Coffee and the bed tax
Certainly one business that seems to be prospering is Redway's Signature Coffee, owned by Karyn Lee-Thomas, [photo at right] also known as the JahVa Mama. Her husband, David, now retired, started the business with her in 1986 when they moved here from Aptos, where she worked as a computer consultant.
Lee-Thomas is also a board member of KMUD radio, which she rates as "probably our most precious community resource, there for everybody to have a voice."
She is also active in a host of environmental causes, giving money to Ancient Forests International, and is a member of the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund.
"I support just about every nonprofit in the area," she said. Every time there's an event, or a `boogie,' as they call them -- we make coffee for it. That's pretty much our form of advertising."
Coffee, she notes, is the second-most-traded commodity in the world, just behind oil.
"We carry coffee from 14 different countries that is organic," she said. "We were one of the original 13 members in the Organic Coffee Association of America."
It seems almost sacrilegious, but she admits drinking tea "mostly every day." She smiles, then adds, "I drink coffee as a treat, not a habit."
Voicing a peeve I heard from others as well, she tells me: "We collect more bed tax than anywhere in the county, and we get very little back."
John Porter, general manager of Benbow Inn and a board member of the Garberville Chamber of Commerce, notes that last year the county collected more than $700,000 in the bed tax from the county's unincorporated areas.
"We pay about $150,000 a year," Porter said. "We collect that from our customers, but it's a big number.
"Southern Humboldt has always collected more than 50 percent -- more like in the mid-60s or low 70s in a percentage basis. So our position to the Board of Supervisors is that we want more funding; we want to get back more of that bed tax money.
"The supervisors have been receptive," Porter says, explaining that when civic leaders have gone before the board and requested money for the Chamber of Commerce budget, "they've basically done what we've asked."
A divisive issue
On another hot issue of the moment in Garberville -- which seems to spark controversies at the drop of a match -- Porter voiced his support of the Garberville Town Square project, which would convert a parking area into a plaza with lawns and benches.
"I think it's a good thing, a viable concept," Porter said. "Certainly if you look at that piece of property in terms of what it is now versus what it could be, I'd say it's a better proposal."
Chamber president Lehman also comes out flatly in favor of it. He says the two usual objections raised are that Garberville will lose the parking that the now-vacant lot affords and that it will attract bums and derelicts, as one choice phrase has it.
(Not surprisingly, one of the staunchest opponents is Hensell. "None of the old-timers like the idea," he told me. "Take all the parking we've got and fix a place for the hippies to hang out.")
But Lehman notes that even if the town square doesn't become a reality, "somebody will build there and the parking will be gone anyway."
He adds, "At least, efforts can be made to find other parking. I'm for anything that beautifies the town. And this will do it."
One of the project's most eloquent voices is that of Jared Rossman, one of the eight volunteer members of the town square committee.
"I've been here almost 31 years now, pretty much all my adult life. I'm still a `newcomer,'" he hastens to add, smiling. "You know, as far as the old guard here."
Now 53, Rossman lives in Briceland -- "a wide spot in the road" eight miles from Garberville, towards Shelter Cove.
"I've lived all around this area, but I've always used Garberville as town -- the laundromat, the only movie theater in 50 miles, the gas station, the grocery store, and of course all the cultural events," he says.
"So I'm interested in making it as nice a place to live as it can be. When I was first here, in 1972, Garberville was just another highway to town. People stopped off here for gas, and then headed back up Highway 101. There were bars, gas stations, and not much else. But it is getting nicer.
"The Soroptimists planted trees along the main drag [Redwood Drive]. And there was a big controversy. A lot of the merchants and old guard didn't want anybody messing with things. But now everybody in town thinks the trees are a major improvement, and they are."
It's much the same for the proposed town square, he says.
"When we started there was a vacant lot in town, the last vacant lot, and it looked like it was going to go commercial and become another mini-mall or a two-story office building.
"It's basically been an illicit parking lot for as long as I can remember, always a rutted and pot-holed place. The community's been using it as a parking lot, but it's always been at the grace of the owner. So when it came up for sale a year and a half ago, we realized this is the last chance to keep this as an open place in Garberville for the whole community. So we jumped on it."
With a laugh, he adds, "Little did we know what we were getting into."
A town without a center
The "we" is the committee of eight core members. "We are all volunteers," Rossman emphasizes. "Nobody's making a dime. We've raised all the money through dances, benefits [and telephone solicitations]. It's been amazing, a lot of support."
The committee has been working for only 14 months, and it has raised "close to $170,000, just in contributions from individuals, businesses, and organizations locally."
[Artist's conception of the Garberville Town Square Project.]
From the town of Piercy on the south to Weott on the north, Rossman figures about 10,000 people use Garberville as "town." He adds, "but there's no common place where they can gather for small events [the Rodeo Queen, he throws in, was crowned in the middle of the street], no public bathroom, no public drinking fountain, no bike rack -- basic human services.
"We're the gateway to the redwoods. How many tens of thousands of tourists come by Garberville and stop in? If we had a town square, a major cultural amenity added to the area Democracy is built around town squares in the United States, and we don't have one here."
Rossman also notes that committee members talked about the project with Sgt. Mike Downey, the officer in charge of the Sheriff's substation in Garberville.
"I said, `You know, we think if we make this place nice, it will attract nice people.'"
As Rossman relates, the sergeant replied: "This is a basic tenet of law enforcement. It's called `the broken window effect.' If you make a place nice, it will attract nice people. If you leave it funky, people treat it funky, and they abuse it and litter it." According to Rossman, the sergeant also suggested keeping the design low profile, so there wouldn't be big things to hide behind, so the committee is talking about benches, planters, maybe a small stage area.
"The fact is that Garberville is getting fancier -- I don't know whether you want to call it gentrification or yuppification -- it's happening in spite of us," Rossman says. "It's happening because they've improved the highway from the Bay Area, so more people come up here in terms of visiting or for second homes. We think Garberville has the potential of becoming a chic, charming town."
The Town Square Committee still owes about $50,000 on the purchase price. The property is owned by another local non-profit called the Iron Mountain Institute.
"And it has agreed to umbrella us," Rossman says. "We're about halfway through our paperwork to get our own nonprofit status. Then we will be the Garberville Town Square, Inc., a nonprofit, charitable organization. We're hoping to set it up with a local board of directors, and raising the money to cover the ongoing costs for utilities, maintenance and a caretaker. We're thinking that we can get the ongoing costs down to about $20,000 a year. And we're thinking we'll be able to raise that with a couple of benefits."
Change is hard
Rossman has spent about a month walking around town measuring the size of streets and widths of parking spaces, and he found that the current parking is under-utilized, and more parking can be created in the town.
"We're trying to promulgate through the county a Garberville Parking Authority that has some clout."
He figures it will be a couple of years before there's a grand opening, but the committee is hoping that next summer they can do some of the underground work -- water, sewer and electric lines.
"You know," Rossman muses, "change is hard, especially change that isn't your own idea. Some of the old guard is having a little trouble because they didn't think of it. They should have. They resisted the Soroptimists planting those trees, and now they are a significant element in the beautification of this community."
As Rossman sees it, this town square will be "a feather in the cap" for Garberville.
"Some people think, `Oh, this is too expensive.' In five years, it's going to look like a steal, the way property values are going up in Northern California."
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