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'Just Across the Bridge' 

A public infrastructure project stymies tourism and pushes Rio Dell's overdue economic resurgence into the distance

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Photo by Sam Armanino

Rio Dell's comeback story has been long in the making. The small city (population 3,400) on the banks of the Eel River was once the seamy playground for the company-town employees of neighboring Scotia, seeing booming business during the Prohibition era when it was an unincorporated area known as "Wildwood." Incorporation in 1965 could have stabilized the town but the bypass of U.S. Highway 101 in 1973 crippled tourism for a time, and the decline of the logging industry dealt an additional blow to the town's economy. Rio Dell once surged on the revenue of 2,500 timber jobs in nearby mills. The Scotia mill, the last remaining, now employs around 250, according to the local chamber of commerce. But recent years have seen a long, slow climb in stability, with a dedicated group of civic boosters advocating for small business growth, renewed investment in public beautification projects and an embrace of the legal cannabis industry all contributing to Rio Dell's renaissance. Between 2016 and 2017, the town's quarterly sales tax returns rose by almost 57 percent. New businesses — a café, two massage parlors and a boutique — took root.

Then in March, an unexpected setback: Caltrans closed the bridge linking Rio Dell to Scotia to repaint it. At the cusp of tourist season, traffic slowed to a trickle. The closure is anticipated to last most of the summer and longtime business owners say it will mean the death of their storefronts.

"I've been here 30 years and I've never been backed up in the corner like this," says Jim Rich, owner of the Pizza Factory. Normally Rich would be adding employees to meet the summer rush. Instead he has had to cut shifts and begun working 17 hour days to keep his business afloat. "I'm here from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. I can't really do anything further, I'm 74 years old. I've got all the arthritis and other stuff. I can't keep this up for much longer."

Like many other Rio Dell business owners, Rich runs lean in the wintertime when the tourist season ends, pinching pennies until northbound RVs and motorcycles start crossing the bridge from Scotia again, turning off the freeway onto the first stop for food and gas after the Avenue of the Giants. Although there are several other entrances into the town, the Scotia exit is the intuitive stop for many tourists who often drive through the historic company town then cross Eagle Prairie Bridge to dine, shop and gas up in Rio Dell before continuing north. Café owners, boutiques and antique store operators all say they have seen their trade dry up in the last three months.

The Eagle Prairie Bridge has a unique distinction as the second-shortest state highway in California (after State Route 275 in Sacramento). Originally part of U.S. Highway 101, the bridge was re-designated as a transfer from the highway in 1970 and is under the stewardship of Caltrans. When Caltrans last repainted the bridge in 2001, it kept it open to one-way traffic. But according to spokesperson Myles Cochrane, the agency made a different move this year, largely for fiscal reasons. The full closure of the bridge means a six-month project; one-way traffic control would stretch the painting job to two years. Full closure is also safer for workers, Cochrane says. A lighted path has been established for pedestrians and bicyclists.

"Because we knew there was a three-to four-minute detour using U.S. Highway 101 — a similar delay time when considering one-way traffic control — we chose the option with a shorter project schedule," Cochrane told the Journal in an email.

Caltrans gave a standard two-weeks' notice to motorists by putting up signs at the entrances notifying people of a planned detour due to construction. With large public works projects, it's customary to hold public meetings and talk to local chambers of commerce to get input, but Cochrane said that with such a short detour (Rio Dell is still accessible by two other highway exits) Caltrans did not take this step. Business owners say the closure caught them unaware, a criticism Cochrane is quick to own.

"In this case, prior communication could have been better, and we have learned from this and will make sure improved communication and notification occurs in the future," he says.

But just how big of an effect could closing a 0.356-mile bridge, only one of three entrances to the small town, have?

"I walked out of my door and it was like a nuclear bomb had gone off," says Adam Dias, who founded the Eagle Prairie Arts District and runs a custom wood gallery on Main Street. "There was nobody on the street, no traffic."

Dias is one of a younger generation of home and business owners who has embraced the family-friendly atmosphere of the town, which is surrounded on all sides by redwood-covered hills and has a mild climate. He calls it "Mayberry." Everyone knows the postal carrier and kids ride bikes on the sidewalks. Dias owns a home across the street from his gallery, which he opened in 2012 after seeing the large amount of traffic that went past his front door. (We profiled Dias and the burgeoning economic promise of Rio Dell in a July 31, 2014, story, "Rio Dell Rising.") The Eagle Prairie Arts District, or EPAD, also helps keep the chamber of commerce open, staffing an art gallery there most days of the week. EPAD has also fostered an artistic push in the city, offering low-cost workshops, holding a monthly arts night and advocating for the beautification of Wildwood Avenue. Sculptures now grace the main thoroughfare's medians. The chamber's intent has been to capitalize on the natural inclination of tourists to travel north on Avenue of the Giants, offering Rio Dell as an extension of that route and calling Wildwood "Avenue of the Sculptures." This could have been a banner year, with Lonely Planet choosing the Redwood Coast as "the best U.S. place to visit in 2018." Instead: disaster.

Dias' business hasn't been hit as hard as others — much of his work is custom and relies on internet sales. But EPAD is treading water. Its annual fundraiser, Art, Brew and BBQ, on May 12, flopped. Last year it raised a modest $4,800 but it lost money this year and EPAD had to return donated beer. For a while it looked like the young nonprofit would close its doors within a month but it was saved by an emergency grant from the Humboldt Area Foundation. Local businesses have been less lucky.

Rio Dell-Scotia Chamber President Nick Angeloff says the closure is just one of a long series of knocks for the town, which has struggled to find its footing.

"It feels like every time we make headway we get hit again," Angeloff says. "We had a 40-percent vacancy rate in 2012. We worked as a chamber of commerce, as a business stimulator, to change that. We started to see a bit of a turnaround. As of this year, we had full occupancy. Now I'm afraid."

Angeloff has been helping connect business owners with the paperwork that would entitle them to collect up to $10,000 each in potential damages from the state, the first step of a long process that could also include going to court. He says Caltrans has been helpful and — after hearing the concerns of business owners — has taken some steps to rectify the problem, including changing signage so visitors don't simply see the off-putting "Detour" sign when driving north but are given more information about where to exit for food and gas. But few people who exit make it to the south end of town, where the Pizza Factory and some other more recent businesses have opened. They stop earlier on the avenue, then turn around and leave. RV owners worry about the tight turning radius. One business owner closest to the bridge has closed her doors, Angeloff says, and no one is certain if she'll open them again. Caltrans has taken other measures to alleviate the pinch, Angeloff says, such as asking workers to buy lunch in town and initiating a change-order with the contractor to speed up the project's finish by a few months.

City Manager Kyle Knopp echoes Angeloff's view of the situation, adding that the news is not all bad. Across the highway, development of the Rio Dell business park, formerly Eel River Sawmills and soon to be a cannabis distribution hub, has brought contractors and construction workers into town. Knopp says the business park is anticipated to create at least 50 living-wage jobs. In the meantime, those construction workers need a place to stay, food to eat and coffee to drink. But, yes, the bridge closure was inopportune and unexpected. Knopp's team didn't receive notice of it directly from Caltrans, he says, but rather from a Humboldt Transit Authority bus driver who wanted to coordinate with city hall on transit stops.

"The bridge closure comes at a critical time for us because the city has been seeing quite a bit of growth in the business community," Knopp says. "It's very disappointing that this action occurred without notice to the business owners or to the city."

While Knopp says "it's pretty clear" the closure has had an impact, he adds that the bridge's continued maintenance is important to both Rio Dell and Scotia and that he hopes future efforts include input from stakeholders on both sides of the river.

"To that end, there's another issue," Knopp says. "It does need to be seismically retrofitted and may need to be closed for an even longer period of time. If they were automatically not to retrofit the bridge in response to some of these events ... that leaves us in a particularly vulnerable position if there is an earthquake in the future. It may be difficult to find financing to fix or replace the bridge if it were damaged."

In the meantime, it remains to be seen if existing businesses will make it through the summer. The aid available through the state — that $10,000 per business that Angeloff is organizing people to apply for — requires businesses to compare annual revenue year-to-year to calculate how much has been lost. But six of the businesses affected only opened this year, meaning they have no idea how much they might be losing out on. Most, like the Green Bean Café, are simply focused on staying afloat.

"It hurt us bad," says Hailee Pollard, who works at the Green Bean. "It hurt a lot of us."

Pollard used to work at the hardware store in Scotia and says that when tourists would ask her where to go for food she would tell them, "Just across the bridge." It's not that simple anymore. Business has picked up since school let out — high schoolers now stop in for coffee and snacks — but it's still touch and go.

Pam Alexander, who works the Green Bean's small kitchen (her daughter Tawny Morse is the owner, but was unavailable for comment), says when they opened the place in January they expected the first year to be challenging, as it is for most new businesses.

"It's just been rough," she says, "Really rough."

For a while it looked like the new cafe might burn out before it even got off the ground. But the end of the school year and the opening of the bridge to bicycle and pedestrian traffic has temporarily buoyed the coffee shop. Word of mouth also helps: locals are spreading the word and making a point of eating in town whenever they can. Although Caltrans has been unable to confirm a date, Alexander and others have heard a rumor that the bridge may open again for one-way traffic in time for Wildwood Days, the town's annual three-day festival and fundraiser for the volunteer fire department, held the first weekend of August. That may just save the end of the tourist season for the Green Bean and others.

"We're hanging in there," says Alexander. "I think we're going to make it."

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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Linda Stansberry

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Linda Stansberry is a staff writer of the North Coast Journal.

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