As reported last week, due to a lack of funds the Dunsmuir Chamber of Commerce has been forced to lay off its office manager, resulting in the closure of the Dunsmuir Visitors’ Center all but Mondays.
The Visitors’ Center is among the most high profile causalities of the city’s current financial difficulties. The Chamber of Commerce receives a large part of its operating budget from the city in the form of TOT taxes (Transient Occupancy Taxes paid by guests at the city’s motels). This year, the city has allocated $5,000 in TOT money to the Chamber, down from roughly double that amount in past years, due to declining tax receipts and other budgetary difficulties.
Chamber president Cheryl Petty, owner/operator of the Window Box Nursery & Art Gallery on Sacramento Avenue, and Chamber vice president Barbara Cross have been seeking volunteers to staff the Visitors’ Center, which they described last Thursday at the Brown Trout Gallery as one of the city’s best tools to direct tourists and their dollars to city businesses.
While understanding the difficult financial situation facing Dunsmuir, indeed facing the whole country, in the wake of rising energy prices and the collapse of the real estate market, Petty and Cross also had many questions as to why the city is not doing more to promote its businesses.
Central to their concerns is their dissatisfaction with the city’s pursuit of a viable economic development plan to revitalize the historic downtown, which has seen a high number of businesses shut their doors in the past few years.
According to Petty, the city has become too focused on putting on events to attract tourists to local shops, when she sees economic development as more of a “…big picture thing.”
“We need an outside consultant, which is beyond the Chamber’s resources, and the city is broke,” Petty explained. “California State University-Chico’s [Northeastern California Small Business Development Center/Center for Economic Development] has a mandate to help Siskiyou County whenever it can. [We’ve] presented this to the city council the past two years, but the city doesn’t think free economic development assistance is necessary.”
In a study produced by CSU-Chico’s SBDC/CED titled, “Siskiyou County: Economic & Demographic Profile 2008,” the statistics for Dunsmuir are as stark as they are bleak. In 1990, Dunsmuir saw Total Taxable Sales of $22,437,000. That number declined to $6,507,000 by 2006. During the same time period, no other Siskiyou County city surveyed, including Dorris, Etna, Fort Jones, Montague, Mount Shasta, Tulelake, Weed, and Yreka, experienced a decline.
While it is true that many of the smaller cities included in the study have experienced only slight gains in total taxable sales, Mount Shasta increased its sales from $44,580,000 in 1990 to $78,859,000 in 2006, and Weed more than doubled its sales from $23,395,000 to $53,026,000. McCloud was not included in the study.
Dunsmuir’s decline, Petty attributes to the Cantara Spill, and the closure or relocation outside of the city of a number of major businesses over the years, including Frank’s Fuel, and the Jim Wilson Ford Nissan car dealership.
Barbara Cross reiterated Petty’s concerns. “If we don’t do some economic development soon,” she explained, “there will be nothing left with which to do it.”  Petty interjected, “We’ll be like McCloud – a place to pull over and get gas and that’s it.”
“I really think that we’re at a tipping point,” Cross continued. “If we lose many more businesses, it will only take a very few more and we will have a ‘closed’ town.”
What Petty hopes is that the city will agree to have economic development evaluations conducted by CSU-Chico’s SBDC/CED, which she believes will help the city find fresh guidance in recovering its economic footing. The evaluations will cost the city nothing, she explained, and offered a document in which the SBDC/CED itself states, “The CED has access to market professionals both in-house and within the local community, and gladly facilitates additional needs to our fullest capacity upon request.”
Contacted by phone Monday, SBDC/CED director Dan Ripke, who sent a letter offering the center’s services to then Dunsmuir Mayor Kevin Russell on February 8, 2007, explained some of the center’s programs. “We work on economic strategies for rural cities. We’re not an academic program, we’re an outreach program,” Ripke explained. “Our staff is out in the field... Last Thursday economist Dr. David Gallo gave a presentation to business and community leaders in Yreka talking about what specific industries help build a local economic base, for example. Sometimes communities have misunderstandings about the real drivers of a local economy... We’re about rolling up our sleeves and working with individual businesses; we have counselors who can work with individual business owners to look at their numbers, advertising... To date we have not received a response from Dunsmuir....”        
Petty became animated in describing her rebuffed attempts to have the city invite the CSU experts in.
“When the City Financial Officer and City Administrator came to the Chamber and asked, ‘Will you support our tax measure nine months ago, for the third time I asked them to support this. I thought it was a creative way to negotiate with them, but they just wouldn’t play ball.”
Sixty percent of Dunsmuir residents responded negatively to the Utility User Tax in June’s city-wide survey, and the city council did not support it when it came before them at their July 25 meeting.
“When Linda Guzman became mayor,” Cross added, “there was an article in the paper that expressed her support for economic development. It made us feel very encouraged.” Petty added. “Linda Guzman calmed things down after a long period of contentiousness [in the City Council]. Now we are in an era where the city and the Chamber can get along, where people can talk about these things without everyone getting upset.”


Contacted for comment as to why the city has so far not taken advantage of CSU-Chico’s SBDC/CED’s services, City Administrator Keith Anderson said, “It’s a failure to understand what the city can do. I read the [CED study], it’s a bunch of facts. There’s [been no action requested]. What action do they want us to do?”
Along with their desire to see the city use the center’s services, Petty and Cross would also like to see the city enforce existing codes that would require commercial property owners to better maintain their buildings, as well as more vigorously solicit tenants. “We have landlords who won’t rent buildings,” Petty complained, and Cross added, “We have some ‘slumlord’ situations.”
“We have a Downtown Historic District ordinance. It says that you can’t have peeling paint on your building,” Petty explained. “It’s never been enforced by the council. They’re scared that the slumlords will sue them. But it’s all been tested in court. It’s been tested before the State Supreme Court.”
As pointed out by Cross, Dunsmuir’s downtown is a state-designated Historic District, which allows the city to force landlords to comply with specific codes of building preservation and upkeep.
“Businesses like the Brown Trout Gallery have to contend with derelict buildings beside them,” Petty said, and Cross added, “Nobody is making [the slumlords] do squat.”
Petty and Cross used the issue of the California Theater’s marquee as an example. In October of 2007, the marquee was damaged by a delivery truck that ran into it. The building’s owner, Mark Juarez, who also owns a number of unoccupied buildings in Dunsmuir’s historic downtown, the unoccupied building to the north of the Brown Trout Gallery–as well as unoccupied buildings in central Weed–has not had the marquee repaired, despite reports that he has received insurance money to do so.
Juarez, contacted Sunday as he visited his properties in Dunsmuir, denied that he had received an insurance settlement for the damage to the marquee. “No, there has not been a settlement... [The marquee] is so specialized, I’m not sure [an insurance adjuster] would be able to do a proper evaluation,” he said.   Juarez, the inventor of the Happy Massager, bought a number of properties in Dunsmuir’s Historic District five years ago, and came before the city council with his plans for bringing the arts and revitalization to the city, including refurbishment of the California Theatre. But the projects  have proven unsuccessful, and his properties now sit unoccupied. “This [property rehabilitation] was not my business,” he said. “I came to town with some ideas and philosophies... I was somewhat naive... There was a lot of money that was put into these buildings... I have spent so much already that I have to be very cautious.” (See the interview with Juarez in this week’s paper.)
City administrator Anderson offered these comments in response to Petty and Cross’s allegations of inactivity on the city’s part in enforcing the historic district’s codes: “[The city] has been actively soliciting the assistance of property owners in rehabilitating the looks of their buildings. We fall short of employing governmental laws against private property owners because it is apparent that the legal proceedings would exceed the city’s budget to pursue. I don’t want to go down that path with the little budget we’ve got here.”
Though posing hard questions about the city’s economic development and historic district building code enforcement policies, Petty and Cross made it clear that they and the Chamber wish to work with the city to find a solution to Dunsmuir’s economic problems. Cross said, “We like working with [city administrator] Keith [Anderson]. He really believes in beautification. Beautification is part of the answer, but it isn’t the whole answer. Take the mural for example (recently painted on the Pine Street wall of the Hotel Dunsmuir and sponsored by the chamber, among others). Keith was enthusiastic and helpful. But economic development is more encompassing, more difficult, and more vital. What we don’t want Dunsmuir to be is beautiful and empty.”