Real estate deals may not have impoverished the Northcoast Environmental Center, but they sure didn't help
By now we've all heard plenty of stories about people who bought houses they couldn't afford, at the top of the market and with no money down. Those luckless homeowners, many of them foreclosed upon long ago, will forever be a symbol of this decade's great financial collapse.
Still, there haven't been many stories quite like the Northcoast Environmental Center's. Earlier this month, the legendary Arcata institution underwent a dramatic downsizing, laying off its executive director, moving offices and cutting back production of the Econews, its monthly newspaper. Now it's coming to terms with the fact that it made the same bad real estate decisions so many others did in recent years -- and, worse, that it did so on the backs of its supporters.
On Friday, Pete Nichols, chair of the NEC's board of directors, sounded pleased that the organization is moving past having to worry quite so much about balance sheets, asset management and foreclosure.
"We're using this as the opportunity to get out of the real estate business, and back into conservation," Nichols said.
However, the NEC isn't quite through with its real estate troubles yet. Some local people are a bit on edge right now, wondering when and how they're going to get back the money they loaned to buy the organization its headquarters at 1465 G St. back in 2006.
The Northcoast Environmental Center borrowed a total of $550,000 to finance its purchase of the G Street office, according to deeds of trust filed with the Humboldt County Recorder's Office. All of the money came from local individuals and nonprofits. And though two creditors were paid off with the sale of one of the NEC's two downtown parcels last April -- leaving a total of $350,000 loaned against the G Street property. As of this writing, the NEC has missed payments on the outstanding loans.
"I just have to play it day by day and tell myself it'll work out," said Arcata resident Don Tuttle Wednesday. Tuttle, the county's former director of public works, and his wife Andrea, former head of the California Department of Forestry, loaned the NEC $50,000 in 2006 toward the purchase of the office.
Tuttle said that he first heard that the NEC was seeking money to buy new office space sometime in 2006, while at a fundraiser for a different institution at Baywood Golf and Country Club. Tuttle said that the money requested was "a pretty good chunk of change" for his family, but that he felt it was important that the NEC should survive. After thinking it over, he went to a lawyer's office and signed papers.
"We didn't want to see it completely disappear," he said. "It was the voice in the dark up here in the era when timber was king."
Felicia Oldfather of McKinleyville, who loaned the NEC around $100,000 at about the same time, said last week that she was not concerned about the possibility of the loan going south. "Of course, one likes to get ones money back," she said. "But it's not a loan I would have made, if I was going to be out on the street if I didn't get it back."
In addition to Oldfather and the Tuttles, four other families or individuals and one other nonprofit institution loaned the NEC money for the G Street property. They are Bette and Milt Dobkin ($100,000), Duncan Ralph ($50,000), Bob and Mary Gearheart ($50,000), Steve Gompertz ($100,000) and the Redwood Region Audubon Society ($100,000).
The loans from Gompertz and the Audubon Society, which were packaged together in one note, were paid off in April of this year, upon the sale of one of the two lots that comprised the old NEC offices at Ninth and I streets in Arcata. According to Martin Swett, NEC treasurer, that note was partially secured by the property that was sold, and so had to be paid off in order for the sale to go through. A building at the site was the home of the organization until it was destroyed by fire in 2001.
Right now, the NEC -- which will be moving offices to the Jacoby Storehouse next month -- is looking at ways of getting the other creditors paid back. Swett said that the organization's board of directors is looking to meet with the remaining creditors in the upcoming days to work out an acceptable solution. One positive note: Despite the market crash, the G Street property seems certain to have at least $350,000 of equity remaining in it, which theoretically should be enough to pay back all of the outstanding creditors.
Swett -- who, like Nichols, was not on the organization's board of directors at the time the loans were made -- said that the organization felt a deep obligation to pay them back as soon as possible. "It's not a position we want to be in long term," Swett said. "They've taken care of us, and we want to be sure they're taken care of."
The deal to buy the G Street property didn't look so bad to the board of directors at the time, Swett said. The mortgage payments on the property were slightly less than the rent that the organization was paying on another downtown Arcata temporary location, the former Angelo's pizza parlor on H Street. What really hurt, Nichols said, was the fact that donations and grants dried up dramatically with the onset and deepening of the recession, a situation he doesn't expect will improve anytime soon.
Things may look rough in the short term, both Swett and Nichols said that the organization's mid-term financial stability looks very healthy indeed. The NEC still holds unencumbered title on one piece of property -- the other downtown lot, which used to house half its headquarters. Though the site is badly polluted, Nichols said that the organization is very confident that it will soon secure grants to clean it up.
"Right now, living lean and mean is good for us, but when this property is cleaned up -- say in 2012 or 2013 -- we're going to have damn good reserves," Swett said.
... Thad Greenson goes all-in against you twice -- once when you're holding A-K, once when you're holding A-Q suited -- and both times the impish little fucker turns out to be sitting on pocket aces.
And that was my Charity Poker Shootout. You can learn your own life lessons tomorrow (4 p.m.-midnight) and Saturday (noon-midnight).
Selling the Marine Life Protection Act to North Coast fishermen -- and official-types -- might turn out to be as tricky as crossing the bar at Humboldt Bay's entrance. Mind ye don't capsize, MLPA Initiative staffers, and become one with the fishes.
OK, nobody was really acting that scary at the workshop last night at the Wharfinger, where MLPA staffers talked with individuals about various aspects of the process that may result in marine protected areas in our region. But resistance to the idea was evident in certain conversations, which invariably started like this:
Skeptical fisherman: "We don't need this act. We already have laws restricting our fishing."
MLPA staffer, polite but a hint exasperated: "This isn't about preserving specific fish stocks, it's about preserving whole ecosystems."
And MLPA staffers were heard saying, repeatedly, that the outcome -- where these marine protected areas end up here on the north coast -- depends on input from local fishermen. But some fishermen seemed skeptical.
Franklin Klopp -- yes, the very man who's got a lake named after him out at Arcata Marsh -- was hanging around outside the workshop talking to Dennis Mayo and Vivian Helliwell, who were pushing a petition to suspend implementation of the MLPA. "These people are sponges," Klopp said, smiling as he nodded his head in the direction of the workshop room. "They take in what you say, act like they're soaking it up -- and then they blow back up again."
Inside, similar grumblings could be overheard in small groups that gathered before info panels. "You give them your information on where you fish, and then that's where they put the marine protected areas," said a suspendered fellow leaning on a pair of ancient wooden crutches.
But not everyone spoke bleakness. Greg Dale, of Coast Seafoods which grows oysters in Humboldt Bay, said he's been watching the MLPA implementation process as it has made its way region by region along the coast.
"I'm fairly neutral," he said. " I think we have to have a little bit of confidence in the process. I think we can work with the process, and maybe we can all benefit. There's no need to be terrified of it. You hear a lot of negatives about it, and you hear a lot of positives -- but it's a tool."
Meanwhile, said Jennifer Savage -- who's working for the Ocean Conservancy to promote the MLPA (and also happens to be one of NCJ's columnists) -- the local conservation community is slowly gathering force to, hopefully, work with the fishermen and local officials in shaping a system of reserves amenable to all.
Ah, but as for those official types: On Monday, a letter expressing concern about the MLPA initiative process was lobbed off to Mike Chrisman, Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. It was signed by the counties of Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino; the cities of Eureka, Fortuna, Trinidad, Crescent City and Point Arena; the Trinidad Rancheria; the Humboldt Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, the Crescent City Harbor District and the Noyo Harbor District; and the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District.
Humboldt County is an insanely political place, but off-year elections are not usually very exciting. You've got your school boards and your community services districts -- important stuff, but not usually interesting anyone who isn't immediately affected by the work of such boards. With rare exception, they generally don't inspire the countywide heat that your Board of Supervisor race does, say, or our Eureka City Council election.
There's been one exception to this rule in recent cycles: The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. This district's grand, insanely expensive and against-all-odds plan to bring container shipping and other types of international freight to Humboldt Bay has been a dependable political lightning rod since at least 2005. Plenty of money, time and effort have gone into district races, and plenty of screaming ensues.
It looks like the election coming up this Nov. 3 will not disappoint. Here's a preview of the two races on the ballot as they stand today.
MIKE WILSON (incumbent) v. DAN HAUSER.
-- either --
DENNIS HUNTER (incumbent) v. NOBODY.
-- or --
RICHARD MARKS v. NOBODY.
Hauser -- a freight-booster -- announced his candidacy this morning, personally dropping off the press release at the Journal offices. He is a former state assemblymember, former Arcata City Manager and former executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the state agency that owns the long-defunct rail line through Humboldt County. In the past year he has twice asked the Board of Supervisors to appoint him to the board of directors of the railroad authority; in both cases, the board chose someone else.
Here's an excerpt from his press release, which, alas, we only have in printed form:
I feel that we need a commissioner who will both protect the environment of Humboldt Bay and create meaningful jobs for our community I will research all environmental and economic facts when looking at the best option for creating living-wage jobs. I firmly believe that we must continue to expolre the option of creating a world-class green port that will set an example for smaller ports around the world.
Hauser's kicks off his candidacy with a long list of endorsements from old-school Democratic Humboldt County political movers and shakers. They include Supervisors Jimmy Smith and Jill Duffy, Senator wes Chesbro, Arcata Mayor Mark Wheetley, Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass and current Bay District commissioners Ronnie Pelligrini and Roy Curless. Somewhat shockingly to anyone who has been around here for a while, they also include former Humboldt County Supervisors Danny Walsh and Anna Sparks, prominent representatives of the OLD-old-school Humboldt County conservative scence, which once loathed the liberal Hauser and all his crew with an ardent passion.
Third Division incumbent Mike Wilson, perhaps the county's most prominent freight skeptic, said today that he will, in fact, seek reelection. "I plan on running, but I haven't made an announcement yet," he said.
Pending that announcement, apparently, he had little to say about the race on the record. However, he did have a brief statement that seemed to counter Hauser's economic development argument: "As an active member of the business community, member of RREDC [the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission] and the Chamber of Commerce and a founding member of the Humboldt Harbor District Economic Develoopment Committtee, I strongly encourage community dialog about sustainable and realistic alternatives for economic development around Humboldt Bay," he said.
Meanwhile in the Fourth Division: Blogger, union man and former pulp mill employee Richard Marks confirmed that he has taken out papers for the seat with the county election department. However, he said that he was a long way for making a decision, and that his decision on whether or not to run would be largely based on whether or not the longtime incumbent is ready to jump in for another round.
"I'm waiting for a decision by Dennis Hunter," he said. "I really would have to sit down and consider whether I would actually run against Dennis."
Why not? Is it that he supports Hunter's position on the issues?
"I'm just loath to run against Dennis," said Marks, twice a candidate for county supervisor. "Have you seen my election record, Hank?"
Hunter could not be reached for comment Friday.
The Humboldt T.E.A. Party Patriots -- the acronym standing for "taxed enough already" -- took to the streets of Eureka again today ( as they did on tax day ), this time protesting President Obama's proposed health care bill outside Congressman Mike Thompson's office. (Though Thompson is reportedly in D.C.) The local group is part of a national movement to fight what they see as the current administration's relentless march into the red scourge of socialism.
When L.A. Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds arrived at the Arcata-Eureka Airport recently, his luggage did not. Could it have been snagged by the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau ? Reynold's unplanned delay resulted in this handy list of "Six things to do in Trinidad while waiting for your airline to fulfill its obligations." Or maybe someone from the Seascape restaurant pilfered it. Reynolds said of their chowder, "Good value at $5.95."
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