What is Humboldt County best known for? This question was posed to more than 100 non-locals at last weekend's Oyster Festival -- 105, to be exact -- and if the answer seems painfully obvious -- as it did to most respondents -- well, that's exactly what the folks at the county's Office of Economic Development hope to change with a new digital media project aimed at "rebranding" the Humboldt image. "We're trying to improve the image of the area beyond just pot, and work with local businesses to make this happen," Humboldt County Film and Digital Media Commissioner Mary Cruse told the Journal recently.
Cruse unveiled the "Humboldt Branding Project" to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday with a short speech followed by a film clip. The project, she explained, will yield six three-minute films showcasing aspects of Humboldt County that are overlooked by, or unknown to, the outside world, including our natural beauty, successful small businesses and artistic panache. The message will be delivered 21st century-style, through Web clips posted on sites like YouTube and Facebook.
"The way we consume media is changing," said Economic Development Coordinator Jacqueline Debets in a phone conversation Tuesday. "As much as we try to have the pursuit of happiness without our BlackBerries, YouTube and Facebook is where a lot of people live. We want to be there."
By "pursuit of happiness" Debets wasn't comparing promo Web clips to the Declaration of Independence; rather, it's the nickname for one of nine local "industry clusters" identified by the county's Economic Development Division as areas of growth in the region's economy. The "happiness" cluster includes beer, wine, cheese and flower companies. "That's the one [cluster] where they [the businesses] could really see the immediate benefit to their ability to sell products," Debets said. "That was the perfect place to start."
Debets and others involved in the branding project, including Angie Schwab, an economic development specialist with the county who has been guiding the endeavor, were reluctant to discuss the details, saying not all of the contracts have been signed. Their apprehension to take the project public may also stem from the fact that it's being partially funded through a $44,000 Headwaters Fund grant. Spending from that public nest egg frequently draws public scrutiny and criticism, and since the branding project is "innovative and cutting-edge," Schwab told the Journal on Monday, "I suspect some people will balk." The total cost, including time for staff research and the expense of the production itself, will be $96,000, with a $40,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration as well as $12,000 from the local businesses that will be featured in the clips.
Cruse, for one, is pumped. She described a "Felini-esque" scene to be shot in a local brewery and a wedding scene that will be filmed at a vineyard in Willow Creek. "We have a small, skilled and very creative crew," she said. Their chops were displayed in the short clip shown at Tuesday's Board of Supes meeting: Against a soft instrumental backdrop, a beautiful woman in a sun dress ambles through a field of tall grass. Cut to: waves crashing against a rocky shoreline, sunlight shimmering through a geyser of sea foam. It's a beautiful, professional-looking clip. You can almost hear the calming voice of a narrator intone something like, "Side effects are generally mild and may include ... ."
If the crew hopes to separate Humboldt from its illicit reputation, they have their work cut out for them. This Journal scribe meandered through the Plaza mob during Saturday's mollusk jubilee with a hand-Sharpied sign pinned to his shirt, requesting the perspective of out-of-towners. So what is Humboldt County best known for? The most popular reply was a tie between "marijuana" and "pot," each garnering 25 separate responses. Coming in third with 13 repetitions was "weed." All told, marijuana and its synonyms ("the chronic," "the green," "smoking") accounted for 69 of the 105 replies -- 70 if you count the glassy-eyed gentleman who cracked a satisfied half-smile and said, "ludicrousness." The percentage may well have been higher had everyone been honest. A number of folks looked at their inquisitor like he might be a simpleton, then spat out some malarkey like "the mist," "hot chicks" (twice on that one) or "a place between Crescent City and Mendocino."
Granted, this informal survey was conducted on the Arcata Plaza -- essentially the bowl of Humboldt County's bong. But the Oyster Fest draws people from across the country and beyond. The (sad?) truth is that, for all our natural beauty and rich history, all our entrepreneurial pluck and artistic prowess, Humboldt's cannabis stigma has proved stickier than the dankest buds.
"I was in St. Croix recently," recalled one Oyster-muncher, "and when I told this guy I was from Humboldt he went, 'Oooh yeah.'"
The label, not to mention the moronic nudge-wink-guffaw that often accompanies it, irks those community members who represent the more respectable endeavors of the region, be it Humboldt State University ("colleges" got a single Plaza response), the business community ("fishing" got two; "the creamery," one; "timber," zilch) or tourism. Among drug-free responses, "redwood trees" came in first with a mere 10 tally marks, followed by "oysters" with seven and "good people" with three.
But Debets and Cruse aren't worried about the chronic labeling. "Nobody can erase the past imagery or the associations," Cruse said, "but we can work on creating something better." Debets agreed that there's no sense in trying to fight the reputation. "I don't think we have to overcome it," she said, "just move on. ... The dope story is so 20th century."