Monday, June 30, 2008

Chronicling a county’s decline

Chronicling a county’s decline
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Newspapers have an inherent bias: reporters can only write about what we see.

When jobs are never created, we can’t interview the specific men and women who would have held them, now unemployed with kids to feed. When housing isn’t built and rents rise, we can’t find the young adults who flee to the cities where they can support themselves.

And so, their faces never grace the front page.

This series on economic development is a brief plunge into that shadow world, a fleeting attempt to tell stories about those ghost people, houses, and jobs.

We spans a half-century of Glenn County development, chronicling the wheelings and dealings in bringing – and blocking – new jobs in the area. We take a tour of the highlights, knowing that many bureaucracy has probably stifled other projects, and opportunities, that are now lost down the memory hole.

Consider the two most prominent developments: Johns-Manville (1959) and Thunderhill (1991).

Each project had a prominent local – then-Willows city councilman Matt Wiest and then-county supervisor Dick Mudd – strongly lobbying for it.

Mr. Wiest cleared eight to 10 a.m. each business day for Johns-Manville. Mr. Mudd suggested to Thunderhill that they come to Glenn County; he then went around reassuring his constituents that the racetrack wouldn’t be disruptive.

When a powerful man didn’t happen to take a liking to a new development project, potential job-providers or housing-providers had little or no shot.

Whether it was a restaurant/motel complex that could have employed 30 people or a power plant that would have employed 300, if the political forces-that-be didn’t like a project, it likely wouldn’t get built.

Reasons could be arbitrary, as in 1982 when a supervisor voted against a 400-unit housing project in Artois because residents would have to use (their own) gas to get to Orland or Willows.

Or they could just be plain-out awful, like when farmers helped to block a power plant coming to Willows. The reason: it would reduce their water allotment.

Except: the lost water was worth about one-hundredth as much as the plant would bring to the county annually in property taxes.

Granted, short-sighted, bull-headed planning decisions aren’t the only thing that have hurt Glenn County in the last half-century. But they’re one of the reasons that the economy is so bad.

Consider that, since 1990, Glenn County’s unemployment rate has been almost double that of California’s as a whole. Or just consider what you see taking a stroll through downtown Willows.

Who’s to blame? Read the series, and decide for yourself.

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