Big Idea Day
by Rex Gressett, September 27, 2017
All day last Saturday, like the gladiator that she is, Marie Jones, Development Director for the City of Fort Bragg, conducted a public participation workshop on the old G-P mill site at the Starr Aquatic Center. A repeat performance at Town Hall is coming right up tonight, Thursday, September 21. The workshops are funded by a $150k grant from the Coastal Commission meant to jump start the eternally inert Mill site development.
The organizers provided colorful charts and posters along with elaborate graphs and many maps. There was a sign-up sheet so Ms. Jones could demonstrate to the funders of the event and the City Council how many people had attended. The charts were really colorful and there was truly an abundance of maps.
I had an opportunity to ask Ms. Jones how this planning exercise differed from the previous community planning sessions that took place in the 2006 and the 2012 eras. These are very different, she told me: "That was before we had these fabulous technologies to create posterboards. That was more like Powerpoint.”
The workshop was conducted four times Saturday. In the first round Marie Jones spoke to ten deeply bored folks. The persistent souls who showed up got tea (no coffee) and an opportunity to share their creative ideas if they had any with the city and the community.
Any saga extending over 17 years has to involve a certain amount of running around in circles. If you wobble down even a crooked line for that long, you are almost certain to find yourself somewhere. The Mill site is the exception that proves the rule. There was a prolonged public groan a few months ago when Marie Jones and her boss, City Manager Linda Ruffing, announced that the hugely expensive, massively complex, long embattled and finally fully negotiated Mill Site Specific Plan was to be discarded and forgotten like a jilted lover. The Specific Plan, they announced, would be replaced by a Local Coastal Amendment, which would henceforth encompass the zoning ordinance for the Mill site. It was a new ballgame. We thought we were back on square one then. After Saturday's all-day workshop we found out how far back square one can be.
On the maps there were various levels of development density indicated in varying colors. Colored pencils were provided and we were asked to color in some cool ideas. Post-its were provided to facilitate elaboration if that was wanted.
When I got my colored pencils and my sticky notes, I was gently restrained from dropping them in the trashcan by my companionable companion who reminded me to be nice. But it was not just me, there seemed to be mute agreement among the ten of us present that the workshop was so clumsily disingenuous that on some level everybody was either offended or at least confused. I saw Linda Jupiter, that stalwart of the “Go” party and irrepressible booster of City Manager totalitarianism, cruising sadly by my table with a look of cynical disappointment and ironic humor that had the poignancy of a Rembrandt. After 17 years of contributing good ideas the community’s idea well had pretty much run dry.
But as we sat around coloring there was one person deeply enthusiastic and aggressively coloring in his map. This individual turned out to be Mike Hart, of the Skunk Train. He approached the development director and tried to lay out his situation and proposal for the future of the city. I thought it deeply weird that Ms. Jones and Mr. Hart had not previously met.
Mr Hart's plan was ambitious, detailed and, he told us, was already on the desk of the executives at GP. Marie Jones looked through and around Mr. Hart.
The Skunk Train, it turned out, had been in complicated negotiations with Georgia-Pacific for some years. Vague rumors of deal-making had leaked out, but our Development Director had recently made it clear to the City Council that the Skunk had dropped their proposal.
The CEO of the Skunk had a different story. He buttonholed Marie Jones and persistently outlined his company’s ambitions to acquire 53 acres adjacent to the Skunk train property, including the dry sheds. This parcel has been blessed by the Department of Toxic Substances Control with a No Further Action Letter indicating (inaccurately) that it is free from toxins. The parcel extends right up to but does not include the dioxin-laden pond area (toxic swamp).
Mr Hart gave us to understand that he was on the brink of finalizing the Skunk's deal with GP. Indeed, it is set to close in November. The Skunk had even lined up a partner for the development of a Hotel. They wanted to abandon their own collapsing sheds and workshops and run tracks out to the dry sheds. They thought it would be great if the Skunk Train ran right along the coast so people could see the whales from the comfort of the passenger coaches. They had proposals for housing. It was all about to happen.
Marie Jones masked whatever astonishment she may have felt with calm displeasure.
Ms. Jones, as Development Director, is the go-to person for any project of any kind or in any scale proposed for the Mill site to the city. Councilman Will Lee had recently brought to the city the inquiries of a developer for multi-family housing. When Will asked Ms Jones about it at the council meeting Jones dismissed the inquiry with a wave of her hand. She is presumed to hold all keys to Fort Bragg development large and small. A new fence, a remodel, a commercial lease, you name it, it starts and often ends in discussion over the counter with her Development Department. The Skunk Train did not bother to consult Ms. Jones. Now it is starting to look like not bothering was the key to the Skunk proposal's success.