Nevada City Council nixes year-round lighting — forgets that Commercial is the “new” Broad Street

996592_10201194555200390_1676370434_n-300x224A majority of the people speaking at last night’s Nevada City Council meeting were in favor of year-round string-lights in downtown. They included the small business owners who are “economic engines” in the downtown, creating jobs and drawing locals and visitors.

Without the lights, it is too just too dark downtown for businesses and their patrons, they kept saying. Nevada City’s street lights are gas lamps. The pro-lighting advocates included popular downtown businesses such as Treats and Matteo’s Public.

But the Council — reflecting a Laurie Oberholtzer political mindset that has long gripped the city — said “no,” you can only have the string-lights between November 15 and January 15.  This included two council members, Jennifer Ray and Terry Anderson, who effectively act as Laurie O.’s “proxy” on the council.

This time the vote was 4-1, with Evans Phelps the lone dissent.  Evans also objected to the Council’s decision to reject a privately funded trail at Sugarloaf and ran for City Council. The Sugarloaf decision left me shaking my head, too, as I discussed it with Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch one afternoon while we were both in town — he with his dog, and me with our magazines.

Ray, Anderson, Duane Strawser and Robert Bergman all voted for the lighting restrictions. Compliance will be voluntary, however.

On Facebook, Reinette Senum was critical of Laurie O. “Let’s talk about the fact that you are the one behind the anti-boardwalk campaign and won’t let it rest, Laurie,” Reinette wrote. “That’s why you went after the terrazzo lights, because, god forbid, it actually was good for Commercial Street and that damn boardwalk.”

To be sure, Laurie O. has been good for the city in some respects, honoring the need to maintain its historic character, as stated here before.

But the rigidity has also been polarizing and unrealistic. And a good example was the outcome last night.

We get around to a lot of towns in our business — from Truckee, to Tahoe City, to Old Town Auburn, to Auburn, to Loomis, to Lincoln and to Grass Valley. Most of them are being revitalized with new businesses and energetic entrepreneurs.

Comparatively speaking, Nevada City has too many vacant buildings, particularly on Broad Street. In fact, there’s no restaurant anymore on upper Broad Street, with the closures and continued vacancies of Las Katarinas, Cirino’s and Citronee. A worthy addition has been the Szabo tasting room, however.

Commercial St. is the “new” Broad St.

I would argue much of the action has shifted to Commercial St., with Matteo’s, Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co., the Boardwalk and stalwarts such as J.J. Jacksons, Ikes Quarter Cafe and Sopa Thai.

Reinette Senum has been a force in bringing new vibrancy to Commercial Street, thanks to the Nevada City Farmers Market (which the “old guard” did not think of), and — yes — the Boardwalk. Reinette also was a major force in getting Three Forks to open.

The First Friday Artwalk is a wonderful event, bringing locals and visitors alike to town. It features the Boardwalk, which also is home to the annual farm-to-table dinner and live music weekly.

Nevada City needs some downtown business owners on the City Council. There was apathy in the last election, much of it from dissatisfaction with the “old guard’s” lock on city politics. But Evan Phelps has helped change that, though she was a lone voice last night.

We need to celebrate the innovations in Nevada City and the innovators, not live in the past. It’s the right thing to do, but Nevada City also faces too much competition from neighboring foothill towns. It’s living on a reputation from the past, a dangerous economic dilemma.

(Photo: Reinette Senum’s Facebook page)

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

51 thoughts on “Nevada City Council nixes year-round lighting — forgets that Commercial is the “new” Broad Street”

  1. There is no correlation between the empty store fronts on Broad Street and the lights on the buildings. If the merchants are relying on lights for business they are already in trouble. Businesses close for numerous reasons, in the food world it is inconsistency, poor service/food etc..

    1. Neil, I know it is not the lights that make or break a business but boy they sure do help to let people know we are open! It is the light that draws people in,I just don’t understand why you people can see that ? When you are traveling & go someplace you have never been,do you look for the lighted business? Or would you rather walk into the dark? The Lights say we are open! The idea of “new lights” cost us small business owner money & time we do not have! Come see me in March! $200 just for the architecture review.That is a lot of money.
      In the food world ?! Of course consistency,service is key. So is having a building that says OPEN! I would love to show you my building lit & then not lit on a dark night! Pictures do not do what i am talking about any true service.

      1. It is Niel ! The couple from Napa with 2 children had no problem finding you and had a great time. We do not have to look like Reno or Vegas. I walked to the Crazy Horse when I left for another meeting . With the store fronts lit the streets were plenty bright and the empty storefronts do present a problem for additional lighting. Upper Commercial and Upper Broad have always been a problem and those areas should be worked on.
        Leaving lights on all year is similar to leaving your Christmas tree up and lit all year. There is nothing special about the effect. There used to be downlights on your building, whatever happened to them?

    2. Niel,
      I think it is the cost associated being street level on Broad St. This is where businesses start getting less representative of the community and more towards high end tourism. I saw this happen in Telluride, CO. The knickknack, t-shirt, sandwich, ect.. all got priced off of the main street (Colorado St.). Our business was one of the last ones that catered to everybody. We owned and operated a sandwich/ ice cream/ mini mart and the person who bought it from us went under within a year from when I stopped managing it. That space is now one of the dozen art galleries, rug shops, high end ski stores, ect… and there are no more merchants for the working stiff locals on Colorado St.

      1. You are absolutely correct about the rents on Broad and that is the issue, not the lights.
        Peter Selaya and I started Posh Nosh and it took 30 years for it’s tour on Broad St to end by very bad management/food.

      2. What would be the rent on a place like Cirino’s vacated? Anyone? Or the history of rent increases? Just curious what a restaurant faces.

  2. Nevada City City Council seems to fail on these kinds of issues because of the Old Guard politics. People come out with huge numbers in favor or against something and the council takes the opposite position, I thought council members were representatives?

    1. They are still, but gang tactics should not be used in these situations there are 2 sides to the issue and there is a middle ground but it takes time and discussion not bullying action as was displayed last night.

      1. Bullying? Do tell Niel who was bullying regarding the roofline lights! I think we all were very polite & stated our feelings & facts! I agree with Ben- The council (other than Evans) does not listen they only do what they want! It sickens me to know they are my representatives to my city!

  3. Chip, Cirino’s building is for sale – $ 549.000 with talk of about $330,000 to comply with the Building Code. Do the numbers !

    1. With numbers like those, we need Obama Stimulus funding round 2. LOL- That’s how Maria’s got remodeled-

  4. Is the Cirino’s spot the actual ownership of the space/ building? I think that is a pretty good asking price for such a nice bar and location but in this Top Down Economy and recovery who is willing to put their economic future on the line with a purchase such as this despite its good price? The same goes for the other open spaces. This is where a manufactured real estate bubble after-effects kills main st economics. Owners have inflated mortgages and to just meet costs the leases have to remain at artificially inflated levels during an economic down time. I know my politics seem very lopsided in favor of the bottom 90% of the economic ladder but there are so many issues that get caught up in the web when we have a top down society and the only ones that can maneuver and adjust are those lucky enough to be able to financially afford it, which only increases the inequality and the problems.

    1. Yes ! I am not sure a million dollar restaurant would pay off in this Community no matter what you were serving unless you so much money it did not make any difference .

  5. This is a sad outcome, as we have all enjoyed the lights and the ambience that has been favored by most rather than the dark and dreary none-the-less unsafe downtown streets.  Yes, the gas lights are cute & darling, but almost useless, with the exception of those few times when the power is off during that seldom snowy night.  I am all for the “less is more” visual concept, but as humans, we are drawn to the enhancement of celebratory light.  The less impaction of the terrazzo lights especially have assisted in lifting that dark element, and for me personally, I feel far more secure in utilizing our local businesses at night on a lit street rather than a dark one.  Within Nevada City, we seeming have the given scenerio of the Puppet Master, who is pulling the strings and is in essence, controlling what goes on beneath her.  And then we have the two willing puppets who have been configured from the very beginning into the management of the infrastructure or the desired continued state.  This is no longer about a historical preference or the written code, but that of a personal vendetta.  Laurie, I have admired all that you have contributed to the city, but the manipulation must stop!  Bury the ax and move forward.

    The Manipulators Motto:  Seek to complicate people’s lives – Irretrievably intertwine, overlap them and intermarry them.

  6. Out of curiosity, does anyne know exactly what is the yearly cost is to Nevada City in having all those cute little historical gas lights operating non-stop 24/7 and how we as citizens are paying into that financial factor?

  7. I am sure it is a lot less than tearing up Broad Street for a year to put in new overhead lighting and hopefully PG&E would allow the City to place the lines underground. That is the amount of time needed to accomplish what is visual today. How many businesses with the rent they are paying would survive the year ?

    1. Niel-
      Exactly ! How many businesses could survive? Giving the councils choice to make the town dark! How many will survive? Niel- I did nothing with the lighting on the outside of my building ,i simply am using what was left after the Rose.I’m hearing talk of new lighting… $200 for a architecture review, then the cost to the county for their permits then the cost of a pro, then the cost of the lights them selves! Not to mention the time it takes to work with both the city & the county! I am open to change in lighting,in the interim we should be dark? We need to show the visitors we are OPEN FOR BUSINESS! Otherwise they might as well go to grass valley

      1. Matt:

        From my distant perch 2700 miles away, I’m not sure exactly what you are trying to do re: new lighting, but it’s hard for me to believe that the county is involved whatsoever. As long as it’s indirect lighting that provides sufficient illumination for customer safety and sign visibility, I can’t understand the fees and reviews. (Or maybe I’m missing something?).

        You may recall that several months ago –– either on this blog or RL’s –– I suggested to you that small lights outlining the windows (inside or outside) was something that perhaps needed review by the planning commission and council, because the justification for their limited seasonal use is apparently no longer relevant.

        To my knowledge, there is no ordinance prohibiting the small lights, but, rather, a policy established in the 1980s. Big difference between a policy and an ordinance, especially when it concerns the inside of your windows. The policy was established as a fire safety issue –– with a yearly letter from the fire chief to merchants explaining that leaving the small lights lit for more than a couple months posed a possible safety problem. But that was thirty years ago when soft lights and LED lights were not being used and wiring might not have been UL-approved.

        If City Hall (commission and/or council) will agree that the fire safety issue is no longer relevant, then you can string lights inside the window frames to your heart’s content, because you control the inside of your windows. Hell, for that matter you can mount spotlights at the inside corners of your windows today and have them shine on the sidewalk. It might be hard to shade them in a way that didn’t bother your customers, but the point is that you control the inside of your windows –– not the city –– except in the case of genuine fire safety.

        And if you need more lighting for customer safety as they enter and leave your restaurant, that sort of thing used to be routinely approved.

        That may not satisfy your interest in having hanging lights over Commercial Street, but I believe there are ways to meet most of your needs without violating any ordinances and without paying money to the city and/or county.

        I may be part of what is called the “old guard” on this blog, but adequate indirect lighting for customer safety and signage visibility was never a big deal in the Dinosaur Days when I served on the council.

        My best to you and your family and hope you have a super fall and winter.

  8. Like Grass Valley, Nevada City ought to belong to groups such as the California Main Street Alliance and the National Main Street Center
    You can get together with other towns to learn “best practices” on these matters, including lighting, which indeed is a factor in attracting locals and visitors (i.e., “A clean, well lighted place”). Nevada City is often too proud and prefers to “go it alone,” but it could learn much from other cities’ experiences. It often operates in a “bubble of arrogance.”

    1. Good point. I haven’t seen it mentioned that covering Nevada City with terrazzo lighting would be excessive and the problems resulting from making an exception for it in one area and then not in another. Nevada City should probably be brighter overall, but as Niel points out, solving that problem equitably and sensibly is not easy.

      I think lighting would be low on the list of important and cost effective changes to make Nevada City more vibrant.

  9. I think the council made the right decision. In my opinion this vote represents the majority of residents that live, work and pay taxes in Nevada City. In 1972 all the ugly overhead wires were put underground, should we go back in time to that look? At some point people get tired of attempts by factions to foster new ideas by bullying.

    1. Steve ! were you there at the meeting? the majority of people that spoke were for the lights and they were mostly building & business owners.They were also many emails & letter written – An on line survey & petitions all with the majority in favor…Not sure where you are getting you stats?The council voted on how THEY believe not for there constituents…A few even stated”this is how i feel” not caring for what the the people want !

  10. Steve,
    I was discussing this on Facebook, so let me repeat myself here. Who said we are going back to all the “ugly overhead wires” and neon signs? Isn’t there a middle ground between what you describe and having merchants hand their customers flashlights to find their stores? I guess it’s a sadder state of affairs than I thought, but I’m concerned about Nevada City’s future while its neighboring towns in the foothills continue to change with the times.

    1. Really Jeff, flashlights to find their stores! Downtown Nevada City has been lit with gaslights for over 40 years and no one has had a problem finding the stores until now??? Also, for the record, Reinette wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of a farmers’ market. The “old guard” as you called them did long before Reinette came back to the area. It started in the New York Hotel parking lot, moved to York St. for several years, over onto Spring St. and then, at the request of the growers and the 7-Hills Business District, moved over by the old Armory and Sierra Pres. church. Maybe she came up with the recent incarnation but she was following in the footsteps of the “old guard.”

      1. Cathy,
        Listen to the merchants, who are the economic engines for our community. They say it is too dark.

        Reinette founded a Farmers Market that was permanent and lasting. Her Boardwalk has helped reinvigorate lower Commercial Street, now anchored by Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. The Boardwalk also has been a catalyst for the First Friday Artwalk. I don’t agree with all of Reinette’s politics, but I’m not threatened by her. She’s full of energy and is results oriented.

        At this point, I’d go so far as to support a recall vote for Jennifer Ray and Terri Anderson in exchange for Reinette and somebody like Valerie Moberg, who is an extraordinary downtown local businesswoman. (I haven’t approached Valerie, though). Evans Phelps has breathed some new life into the Council. It’s readily apparent.

        The “old guard” needs to know when it’s time to graciously pass off the baton. Instead, it is showing more hubris. What worked then may not work now. Let it go Cathy.

      2. It’s more than a bit ironic to consider recall votes for any of our five City Council members since I believe they all ran completely unopposed for their current terms. Perhaps the tenor of the town has changed an octave or two since the last two elections, but in recent years, there hasn’t exactly been a surfeit of civic-minded folks stepping up to do the occasionally thankless work of local government. Same goes for our local school board, for that matter…lots of unopposed candidates. Not sure how we go about changing that, but it would be nice to see invested and committed citizens bringing their hearts and minds to the table…

  11. I conduced an online poll on this issue, acting as a researcher with a strong background in social sciences and consumer behavior, and a strong interest in the demographic and cultural changes that are vividly taking place in Nevada City. The poll was taken by 237 people, mostly in the 95959 zip code and about a third having a 3-digit Nevada City address. Of those 237, 79.7% favor the rooftop contour lights being kept on year-round. I structured the poll to be balanced, with positive framing for both points of view (year-round lights and Holiday only). The response rate on this poll was very high — about 49% — indicating an issue of interest, especially among women. Women favor the year-round lights by a 5-1 margin, while men favor them by a 2-1 margin. It is also worth noting that the cost of conducting this poll was about 25 cents per respondent (which I paid for as a business case history looking at social media dynamics and their impact on social issues and civic governance). That is about 6-8 times lower than just the production cost of a typical poll using mail and/or email. My interpretation of the results is that the contour lights have an extremely positive emotional impact that the gas lamps alone do not have. I do not often see such pronounced results, and especially gender differences, in a survey. When the discussion turns to practical lighting issues such as visibility, safety, and indicators of business hours, a vital consideration seems to be missed, which is that the Nevada City “brand” is very clearly enriched by contour lights; people love them; they make people feel good inside; and as one poll respondent said, “Life is short. Light it up!” Shutting off the lights would appear to shut off a degree of affection for Historic Downtown Nevada City, and the unique emotional response to being among the lights would simply not be there. And if there is one thing I know from a long career in consumer marketing is that people spend their time and money where they feel good, emotionally. So my advice is to really factor human emotions into this issue. These are my interpretations as a researcher, for just this issue. In the future, I hope to continue looking at civic engagement in Nevada City as it is influenced by social media and online discourse. I think in the years ahead of us, online discourse will further democratize the decisions that guide Nevada City through its ongoing transformation — one that is definitely not without its leadership challenges.

      1. This is awesome information, Lex. An insight that most NC city council members will completely ignore. However, I will share on FB none the less. It’s very valuable to NC residents and its visitors!

  12. Jeff:

    I have not posted any comments on this blog for months, but feel compelled to do so now because of your suggestion to Cathy Wilcox-Barnes that she and others of what you call the old guard need to “graciously pass off the baton” and let the Reinette Senums of this world lead the way.

    If it had not been for Cathy and her generation –– and the generation that preceded her –– Nevada City would be about as unique and appealing as Milpitas. To suggest to Cathy and others that it is time to step aside is, in my opinion, inappropriate.

    Other than that, hope all is well with you and yours. Not very optimistic about Tim Hudson tonight, but if the Giants win two at home, maybe they’ll win it all back in Kansas City?

    1. Steve,
      The old guard of today were the up and comers at one point. They were pushed and shoved, bullied, and manipulated just as they are doing now to anybody who doesn’t share the same vision. We are living in a much different time that 1980’s and it is time for this old guard to give up the reins or enter back into the fray and run for public office again so their ideas have public accountability. There is room for the old guard to have input and some very important role in moving forward by sharing their experiences not by pulling the strings from there puppet council members from their living rooms.

  13. Thanks Steve. We’re not just talking about the “Reinette Senums of the world,” though she is indeed in the mix. We’re talking about all sorts of people who spoke out in favor of the lighting plan — merchants who create jobs and generate sales tax receipts in our town. (In fact, as I was responding, some poll results appeared here). I do believe that some of the “old guard” have become counterproductive in their efforts to “save” Nevada City. It’s time to “let go.” Nevada City needs help from all of its constituents.

  14. The above mentioned poll struck a chord with me thinking about going to Disneyland as a child and later as an adult. The fireflies in the trees the old time lights on main street, the party lights along the walkways. It was the lights that made it so special. Maybe it is just me. I like lights.

  15. Please keep the lights! Yes, it’s an emotional response. like to feel warm and yummy where i live and have my family visit. keep this place magic and if it’s something as simple as lighting our sweet town up why not. I do not understand the hard stance against this with some of the people out there. Get out of your heads and back into your hearts a bit more. I love the lights.

  16. I find it strange that Reinette wants the energy usage in Nevada City to increase. I do not want know what the increase will be and the merchants should know all the costs that will be involved. Truckee is lit all night ,we are not Truckee or anywhere else in the World – We are Nevada City ! Truckee retrofitted all there downtown lights to LED’s and expect to save thousands of dollars by doing so in energy costs. What was the cost and who paid ? Truckee’s TOT income(the last time I heard) was around $150,000 per year. Maybe Jeff will be able to verify this and find out the other information. Matt had implied the cost of changing lights would cost approximately $ 200. for his business yet complained about cost of putting downlights on his building. In the past , this was what lit up his building and was very effective, more than twinkly lights on the roof line. Most of the merchant complained about the darkness of town, I propose on Halloween all the merchants turn off their window lights and turn on the roofline lights and prove their allegations that the roofline will add that much more light on the street. Friday night the only real dark in town was the side of Friar Tuck’s building on Commercial and York Streets from Treats to Commercial, and the store fronts that had no window lights turned on for the evening.
    Cheers and have a good day 🙂

    1. I would like to see the Nevada City Council take the initiative to direct staff to see how Truckee is managing this, including the LED lights. We also could get the Sierra Business Council to help the town, I’m sure.

    2. The Town of Truckee Transient Occupancy Tax receipts for 2012-2013 were $1,718,415 or about 10% of their annual budget. I think Truckee has a lighting and landscaping district that pays for the lighting (and a lot of other things), but I will check with the town and get back to readers here.

      If Nevada City is interested in working with SBC on downtown lighting we would be thrilled to work with them. We are working with NC on an Energy Action Plan right now, but no specific implementation measures have been identified yet.

      We have done a few downtown lighting projects in other areas of the Sierra, Murpheys is a good example, to reduce energy costs while either replacing streetlights or moving to alternatives. Much of the cost is covered by PG&E’s energy efficiency program. I am not sure if the proposals put forward so far would qualify.

  17. i would love more lights downtown. especially as a woman i like well lit areas. probably nothing a man ever has to think about. i understand, but please have empathy here. and getting older makes me want to have more light at night, too. at home i have holiday lights on year round. makes me happy. i do wish we would use led lighting, or something other energy efficient. for me this is not a merchant issue, it’s a people issue. i love walking to town and strolling around something i would not do without lights.

  18. Steve,
    Thank you for the information, I guess I was a little behind in the figure.
    The information has been forwarded.

      1. Sounds like that $150,000 figure might be correct regarding funding to the Chamber, who in my humble opinion does a damn good job of providing service for those dollars if they are correct.

  19. Noticed this on Facebook tonight:

    Reinette Senum
    7 mins ·
    That’s right. We’re done. We’re taking our light and taking it to the streets, Wed, November 5th, 7pm, in response to the Nevada City city council’s vote to have Nevada City turn off its lights! Read on…..
    (via Lorre Flores) What’s on my mind… lighting up Nevada City! We are organizing a community “Lighten Up” Parade on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 at 7pm. We want to keep our lights on in Nevada City!! Light up yourself and your family and friends and march with us from the Robinson Plaza (where the Nevada City Farmer’s Market music plays) up Commercial Street and down Broad Street. Bring flashlites, headlamps, glowsticks, LED tube lights – whatever lights up! This is a family friendly and peaceful event to protest the darkening of Nevada City.

  20. As a downtown business owner (The Parlour @ Neva Co, on Broad St) and the organizer and founder if the First Friday Artwalks, I can say that it is crucial to have these lights on year round. They provide an important element of safety the gas lights do not provide at a fraction of the cost (which, by the way the business owners pay for the rooftop lighting and those gas lights, with that gas flowing 24/7 is payed by taxpayers). They are conveniently already in place, and no “overhead wires” are needed. I would much rather pay the minimal increase on my shop’s electric bill for these lights. They also make it more evident that my business is open (as Matt has mentioned). They also have become a trademark of Nevada City as is evident in many tourist photos taken year round and our best selling postcard of Nevada City features these lights on a warm summer evening at one of the Artwalks.
    These lights also provide much needed lighting during our many downtown events which happen outside of the Holiday season (Artwalk, Hot Summer Nights, and more). In planning the Artwalks, it was discussed with City Council for us to use more of this type of lighting (before this new policy was even an issue).
    I think our city council is shooting theirselves in the foot by enacting this policy which is sure to lower tax revenue and could possibly help in the shuttering of more downtown businesses. I really don’t believe the real issue here is the lights, as it seems to really be about politics and egos. I hope that we can all put our egos aside and do what’s best for our downtown businesses and community.

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