McCloud hears development advice from Willits

Tony D'Souza
McCloud Chamber of Commerce’s Brian Stewart introduces Lynn Kennely, Holly Madrigal, and Alan Falleri, civic leaders from Willits, who spoke to a packed Scout Hall Monday night about how they have worked to turn their town’s economy around.

Community members packed Scout Hall last night for a potluck dinner hosted by the McCloud Chamber of Commerce. In an event titled “Fresh Business Goals and Ideas,” the Chamber of Commerce invited civic leaders from the mill town of Willits to speak on how their community is reviving their economy through “local first business networks.”

On hand to offer their experiences and advice were Lynn Kennely, executive director of the Willits Chamber of Commerce; Holly Madrigal, mayor of Willits; and Alan Falleri, Willits’ community development director. Under their guidance, Willits has seen a half percentage point increase in its sales tax revenue while similar communities have all suffered losses.

Introduced by the Chamber’s Brian Stewart, the three visitors from Willits spoke of the parallels between their town and McCloud, and the approaches they have taken to turn their economy around in the face of the closing of Willits’ timber mills.

“Being an old logging town, we are facing similar economic hardships [as McCloud],” Falleri began. “I have 30 years of doing city planning. The question is, ‘Why do we plan?’ We plan because we just want to make the community we live in a better place to live. One of the biggest aspects of that is economic health… Small is beautiful… We have lots of mom and pop businesses. Most likely we are not going to get an IBM to come in and save the day.”

To this end, Willits has decided to participate in the BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) network, an alliance of autonomous local business networks that stresses business sustainability at a local level. BALLE was in many ways the main focus of the event, with all three speakers from Willits emphasizing the importance of participation in the network to help change behaviors to keep local dollars within the community’s economy.

“We need to localize our economy to make [it] stronger,” Falleri explained. “It takes the whole community to do this. The city tries to provide some funding – it paid for our chamber’s membership in BALLE – it gives façade grants to businesses to refurbish their facades, provides energy grants, water grants, small grants, $7500… We’re struggling with a ‘big box’ store right now, we’re putting together an ordinance – No ‘big box’ stores. There’s not any magic one way to do things. McCloud is a very special and unique place. Small steps are necessary.”

“Our chamber members ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’,” Madrigal added. “And we need to tell them, especially in these economic times. We need to love one another, and we need to protect and keep one another. As far as your Chamber of Commerce members, you had better treat them like gold because you won’t have them if you don’t.”

According to the Willits leaders, participation in BALLE has been one of the most important decisions they have made because the network has allowed a venue for the larger corporate businesses in town to shore up the smaller local businesses, and has brought new members into their chamber.

Focusing on reiterating the message to residents to buy locally, the Willits leaders have seen their sales tax receipts go up, even while their Transient Occupancy Tax has gone down. The TOT tax is paid by guests who stay in an area’s hotels and motels. Because their TOT tax receipts have gone down, the Willits leaders have interpreted the data as a clear sign that the growth in the economy is due to changed spending habits among the local population.

“It’s important to keep your money, as much as you can, at home,” Madrigal explained. “Ask people to keep at least 10% more of what they spend in the local economy. It has helped our small businesses weather the economic storm.”

Other suggestions made by the Willits panel were to promote local festivals and run a local farmers’ market year-round, focusing on crafts when there is no produce in the cold months. Both approaches have been successful in Willits, with their Harvest Moon Hometown Celebration attracting local and out-of-area dollars. Signage directing tourists to what their town has to offer was also a key issue in Willits. Members of the audience told the panel that signage is also an issue in McCloud.

“Your downtown is so lovely,” Kennelly said at one point, “you need to come to Willits and talk to us.”

Though McCloud and Willits share the economic hardships of the loss of the logging industry, clear differences between the two communities also came to light. Willits, which bills itself as ‘The Gateway to the Redwoods’ sits directly on Highway 101, is larger than McCloud, and lies in closer proximity to major metropolitan areas. As Madrigal conceded about the increase in Willits’ sales tax, “We’re right on the highway, and we sell gasoline.”

In a lively question and answer session, McCloud residents and chamber members asked for tips on how to promote their businesses, including one restaurant owner who complained that local residents drive all the way to Mount Shasta for breakfast because they don’t know that he serves breakfast at his establishment, located one mile outside of town.

The Willits mayor suggested that McCloud businesses produce something like ‘The Discover Willits Guide’ which highlights all that Willits has to offer. Kennelly added, “The perception that everything is more expensive locally is baloney. The idea that I’m going to [drive] three hours [and save money], that’s baloney.”

With the Nestle bottling plant and the proposed jobs it would create the elephant in the room, one audience member asked the panel if their ‘shop locally’ approach has created jobs in Willits.

“Working with our local merchants,” Falleri responded, “we haven’t seen anyone who has lost employees in the last year. Empty shops have been refurbished. It used to be that there was no real pride in our downtown. Now most shops are being fixed up.”