by Jim Hight
Photos by Brandi Easter
IT'S A BIG FISH, A REALLY BIG FISH.
A chinook salmon 6 feet long, it was made from three-sixteenths-inch steel and hung last summer in a wooden arbor on the east bank of the Eel River.
The city of Fortuna paid blacksmith Mike Pick $1,500 to create the sculpture as a "focal point" for an overlook astride the levee path at the south end of town.
A $1,500 fish for a "focal point"? Have Fortuna's town leaders caught the government grandiosity disease?
Not when one considers what the city has accomplished in the adjacent South 12th Street area, and how enthusiastic Fortunans seem to be about what's coming here in the near future.
On land once inhabited only by the ghosts of old sawmills, Fortuna has created a thriving "tourist complex" of motels, restaurants and an RV park.
But the city saved the best piece of riverfront land for public use. On a 3-acre parcel with a magnificent view of the Eel River Valley, the city will build something that Fortunans have wanted for years: a multipurpose community center that will hold up to 600 people.
The $1.6 million project is scheduled to break ground this fall. It will include a dance floor, kitchen, exhibit gallery, large fireplaces and a tourist info room. More than $100,000 has been donated by local people, businesses and groups, including the Fortuna Sunrise Rotary Club, which built the arbor where the fish hangs.
Municipal projects like this are not unusual. Indeed, the Eureka Redevelopment Agency has given a large boost to the Old Town and the west side industrial areas. And Arcata has built an industrial park, sports complex and other projects.
But Fortuna's redevelopment program stands out because of how much the city accomplished with so little.
Redevelopment in this town of 9,700 was kick-started in the late 1980s when a popular state agency needed a new home.
Displaced from its old quarters in Weott, the California Conservation Corps (CCC) needed a new office and barracks. Fortuna saw the opportunity to create a home for the CCC in Fortuna and use it as an anchor for new development. To make it happen, the city worked out a complex proposal:
"We would design, finance and build the CCC facility, the CCC's rental payments would cover the financing costs, and after 26 years we would sell the project back to the state for $1," said Dale Neiman, city manager.
The CCC accepted, and the city lent $500,000 in "seed money" to its redevelopment agency to buy the parcel, design and construct the CCC facility, and make water and sewer improvements. The CCC paid a lump sum of $62,000 to cover staff time invested in the project.
Assured that new businesses would move into the South 12th Street area, Pacific Gas and Electric extended natural gas service and upgraded electric service; Cox Cable wired the new neighborhood for cable television, something motels require.
The Pacific Rivers RV Park (now the Fortuna KOA) opened first; the CCC center was completed in 1992; and over the next four years, three motels, a Denny's Restaurant, a BP gas station and the Eel River Brewing Co. opened.
The new businesses pay sales and bed taxes to the city, as well as property taxes, much of which go directly to the Fortuna Redevelopment Agency.
Under state law, redevelopment agencies receive income from property taxes in a "blighted" area when those taxes increase due to the agency's projects. The portion of this "tax increment" going to the FRA has been trimmed by changes in state laws, but it still gets 75 percent of the increase in property taxes.
And when you consider that the city bought the entire 6 acres on South 12th Street for $50,000, the increase in property value -- and the correspondent tax increases -- are enormous. The city estimates it will make $40 million in tax-increment funds from this and other redevelopment projects by 2029 when the redevelopment plan ends its 40-year term, as mandated by law.
The FRA has used these revenues to pay back its city loan and to fund redevelopment projects in residential and business districts. The agency and the city also used tax-increment funds, as well as federal and state grants, to extend city water; upgrade storm drainage and sewage systems; improve streets and parking; and help rehab private houses.
Another important beneficiary of the tax increment money was Fortuna's downtown Main Street, with its mix of historic buildings and small businesses that had survived the opening of the Bayshore Mall and the 1992 earthquake.
Like downtowns across the country, Fortuna's older retail buildings endured a series of cosmetic makeovers in the 1950s and 1960s. Redwood siding was covered with stucco and asphalt shingles; architectural details that evoked the turn of the century or the art deco movement of the 1920s were removed or covered up.
"In that era of modernization, anything old was not good," said Alex Stillman, a historic preservation specialist who has advised Fortuna on its downtown revitalization. "They took off all the gingerbread, the bay windows, the transoms above the storefronts ... and began to lose the sense of what the community was like in its different historical periods."
But as anyone who's visited Victorian Ferndale, Old Town Eureka or the Arcata Plaza knows, preserved and rehabbed downtowns are hot. And with increasing competitive pressures from the discount chains like Kmart and from new shopping centers, downtown Fortuna merchants knew they could benefit from the cachet and attractiveness of a historic tableau.
In fact, some of Fortuna's downtown merchants have been working with the city to get a historic preservation rehab program off the ground since the 1970s.
"We used City of Eureka planners as independent contractors and created a downtown redevelopment plan that was adopted in 1972," said Larry Francesconi, owner of Redwood Bootery at Main and 11th streets. "But the city didn't have the resources or staff to execute the plan."
This time around it did. The city began in 1991 by putting the unsightly web of phone and power lines underground. It hired architects and preservation specialists to give building owners suggestions for remodeling their exteriors.
Then came the earthquake of April 25. While Ferndale and Scotia were hit harder, several of Fortuna's old buildings were damaged. The brick Bistrin's department store building nearly collapsed (it housed an appliance store at the time; Bistrin's had closed years before.) And many other buildings sustained damage.
"The facade program was ready when the earthquake hit," said Francesconi, whose building was the first of more than 20 to be fixed with help from the city.
Walking around the downtown blocks, Francesconi sees transition and change written in the walls of his downtown neighbors' buildings. "Western Auto used to be a Ford dealer. The theater has taken two of its lobby areas and made them into small stores."
Pointing at the Beverage Plus liquor and food store, he says, "This was formerly the biggest hardware store in the area, with a full basement loaded with tents and camping gear."
The theme is clear: The era of large, independent retailers in downtown Fortuna is over. As witness to the fact stands the recently closed Daly's department store at 10th and Main streets.
"We're painfully aware of the fact that we can't attract retailers who need 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space," said Francesconi.
Francesconi's own business shifted gears when he opened a 2,800-square-foot store at Bayshore Mall several years ago. He estimates that store does three to four times the business of the Fortuna store.
But Fortuna's downtown has a niche, especially in a town with long traditions of civic pride and a "buy local" ethic. Francesconi is investing in an interior rehab to carve his building up into five ground-floor retail shops, with two offices and two apartments upstairs.
Smaller businesses have opened throughout the downtown: a Eureka Baking Co., James Darin Joaillier jewelry store and a Mexican restaurant that sources say is very good.
"Main Street is taking on an old town flavor, and we're kind of encouraged about that," said Kathy Major, director of the Fortuna Business Improvement District, which helped the weekly Fortuna Farmer's Market relocate to 10th and Main streets. (It's open Thursday afternoons.)
With its own retail market analysis confirming these trends -- and with city residents voicing support for downtown revitalization -- the city beefed up its downtown plan in 1994. The key elements:
It all adds up to a renaissance for Main Street Fortuna, an area that "a lot of people were ready to write off a few years ago," according to Francesconi.
The downtown and South 12th Street redevelopment projects seem to enjoy widespread support from Fortunans, even from those who have complained that annexations and residential development are making the town grow too fast.
"I've been in favor of developing downtown for as long as I've been here, and that's a long time," said Ted Trichilo, whose emphatic anti-growth criticisms were published in a July 25 letter to the Humboldt Beacon. "It will improve the appearance and economic condition of the town."