Nevada County’s Blanche DuBois economy

You can tell a lot about a community by looking at its retail line-up. If the roster includes Whole Foods, Nordstrom and Restoration Hardware, you can safely assume it’s a high income area.

On the other hand, if the area features a Grocery Outlet, Kmart and –coming soon–Dollar General, then it could be Grass Valley, which is apparently positioning itself as the down-market alternative to Auburn. (“Auburn too expensive? Shop Grass Valley!”)

The retail situation is a reflection of the economic malaise that has afflicted Nevada County since (some would argue) the bloom went off the Gold Rush. Since the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, the Golden State has grown from a frontier wilderness to one of the top 10 economies in the world.

During that same period, Nevada County became an economic backwater. Leaning heavily on mining and lumber, the county did nothing to diversify its economy beyond natural resources. That approach worked well until the mine owners closed up shop and the saw mills went silent.

Now we depend on building homes and selling real estate to retirees moving here, and a tourist- and recreation-oriented service economy that pays low wages and offers little chance of advancement.

The result is what you would expect: The population is aging as young people go elsewhere in search of jobs. Nevada County residents are better educated than the average state resident–just what the knowledge economy requires–but we don’t have the jobs that utilize their skills.

Depending on the kindness of strangers

Depending on the kindness of strangers

We do have plenty of jobs for counter attendants, concessions and coffee shop workers, food preparation workers, hotel desk clerks, recreation attendants and restaurant workers in a county where seven of the top nine employers are six ski resorts and a hotel.

They rank among the 10 lowest paying jobs in the state, and you only have a job if the tourists keep coming and the weather cooperates. Like the fictional Blanche DuBois, Nevada County’s economy depends on the kindness of strangers.

Some people think ecotourism offers hope for the future, but that’s just more of the same. More bike rentals and zip lines won’t put much more money in workers’ pockets. What little broadcast technology we have here appears to be fading along with what used to be Grass Valley Group.

The county Board of Supervisors has done little to promote economic development. What little promotional money the county spends is parceled out to various Chambers of Commerce that individually can do little to raise the county’s visibility. Business development has been ceded to the Economic Resource Council, an outfit that has little to show for its feeble efforts.

The county needs to take the little money it spends on development and hire a county economic development officer who can develop a focused, systematic program that will attract new businesses with good paying jobs. (If the chambers want to promote local businesses, let them get the money from their members.)

We also need to elect city and county leaders who make economic development their number one priority: No more talk, we need action. Otherwise, we can just pray that the estimated 10,000 residents who leave every morning for jobs outside the county return home at night.

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