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Boomerangers 

When I moved to Humboldt County in 1980 one of the first people I met was Fred Griffith, who then ran a shop in downtown Eureka. I had come to town dreaming of becoming a publisher. Fred briefly rented me a commercial space in an alley behind F Street, and was gracious enough to give me my money back when I got a better deal -- a Victorian flat where I could legally run our business from our living room.

But before Fred and I parted ways, he made one remark that has stuck with me all these years. A lot of people come to Humboldt, give it 10 years or so, and then drift away in search of other opportunities, he told me once.

That was in August of 1980, and you can be sure I remembered his remark when, 10 years later, almost to the day, I moved my family back to New York to begin a newspaper career that would eventually lead me right back here.

Apparently I am not alone, and the comings and goings of people like me seem to be part of the county's fabric.

Just the other day, Trinidad resident Janine Volkmar, a neighbor during my business days, told me a similar tale. Like me, she had come to Humboldt from the Bay Area, lived here long enough to buy a house and then left the area to pursue a career as a librarian. After a decade of working at libraries in Hawaii and Philadelphia, she had returned to her 62-year-old cottage overlooking Moonstone Beach, underemployed, perhaps, ("I'd still love to be a librarian!") but happy.

"The house is the same age as I am and we both have foundation problems," quipped Janine.

Or consider Marty L'Herault of Eureka's Old Town Carriage Company, who has moved in and out of Humboldt several times since 1978. (I'm sure he'd recite chapter and verse if you give his horse, Barney, a little work in the slow season.) But here's the gist: A theater major lured here by a brother and the natural beauty of the place, Marty left Humboldt the first time to give his regards to Broadway, but ended up driving a horse and buggy around Central Park.

"I learned everything I know about horses in Manhattan," Marty said as he outlined his latest dream: to open a carriage house in Old Town once his wife, Michele, sells the house near Madison, Wisc., where he last tried -- and failed -- to live beyond the Redwoods.

Is it wishful thinking to imagine that the cumulative dreams, hard work and capital investments of the Martys and Micheles among us may yet create a broad-based prosperity to complement the natural beauty that we already enjoy?

I confess to being hopeful and I found at least one statistic to back up that sentiment. According to the state Employment Development Department, between 1990 and 2009, the number of business establishments in Humboldt County increased by 27 percent. With tax time coming, about 4,788 local companies are now issuing W-2 forms to roughly 33,688 employees.

Dennis Mullins, a state labor research analyst in Eureka and 1970 graduate of Hoopa Valley High, said it's a good thing all those small businesses have sprouted here because as the old industries -- timber, pulp, fishing and farming -- have declined, new services like health care, arts, gaming and tourism have arisen to take their place.

"In the last 40 years I can't think of a single example where economic development has succeeded in bringing a large employer to Humboldt County," Mullins said.

But let's not get complacent. Our small businesses are struggling. So are their employees. State Department of Finance data show that in 2005 (the most recent year for these data) the average proprietor of a non-farm business in Humboldt County earned just over $21,000. Given how many local government employees earn that much or more, no wonder the Tea Party has a local following!

Humboldt State University professor Eric Eschker, who maintains the Humboldt Economic Index, said this county is faring better than other rural economies, in part because it draws new dreamers. But it also continues to lose those who drift away, and so the local population never grows enough to allow all the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers to boost their incomes and create more jobs.

"People move where they have opportunities," he said.

Even so, conditions here are much better than during the Timber Wars of the ’80s and ’90s, according to Peter Pennekamp, director of the Humboldt Area Foundation and one of the county's better-known boomerangers. A former Oakland resident who came north via HSU in the early 1970s, Pennekamp worked here through the mid-1980s, then spent several years holding down big jobs in Washington, D.C., before returning in the mid-90s.

"I felt like I was busy being important but not living the life I wanted with my family," he said.
Now Pennekamp senses a change that gives him hope: "People who wouldn't have been seen on the same block a few years ago are now sitting in the same room," he said.

(Editor's note: This column focused on the economy. If you could name the top three things on which the Journal should focus in the months ahead, what would they be? E-mail or write us at topthree@northcoastjournal.com or 310 F St., Eureka, CA, 95501.)

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