When I look around at our small towns in the foothills, I notice that most of them know their identity and are working to”brand” their towns for locals and visitors alike.
•Truckee is pitching itself as a progressive place that wants to attract Bay Area visitors, among others, and promote the outdoors to its locals. In 2014, the Truckee-based Sierra Business Council named up-and-coming Moonshine Ink a “vision award” winner,” (not the longtime Swift newspaper). Truckee is being proactive about climate change, and it has a bank of new supercharging stations for electric cars.
•Auburn is dominated by an “old guard” mindset, but I see an effort to change that, embracing a more sophisticated approach. One example: Labeling Auburn the “endurance capital of the world.” I notice marketing that is geared more toward millennials and “big city” visitors (under a reenergized Placer County Visitor Bureau), the world-class dining scene (Carpe Vino), and the desire to build a new boutique hotel in Old Town.
•Nevada City has a “vibe” to it with a slew of new businesses, such as ‘ol Republic Brewery, Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co., the new Los Mineros taqueria (with an acclaimed Bay Area chef) and the Golden Era lounge. Much of the shopping is unique, such as KitKitDizzy. The small town is beloved by visitors and is cited in numerous “best of” honors by national publications.
When I think of Grass Valley — compared with Truckee, Auburn and Nevada City — I get more of a mixed message. To be sure, I do get a “vibe” from Yuba Blue, Tess’ Kitchen Store (with its Chef’s Table dining experience), the coffeehouses, Mountain Recreation and other downtown merchants. The Center for the Arts is humming along. There is more energy in Grass Valley about the Wild & Scenic Film Festival. And I can see a pent-up enthusiasm to draw millennials and other visitors.
But I also get a “Ozzie and Harriett,” “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mindset that resists change — often from the “old order” than has run the town for decades.
A Tale of Two Murals
One poignant example surfaced this week, with the revised plans for the Dorsey Marketplace — once envisioned as the possible home to an organic grocery store (BriarPatch) and a state-of-the-art multiplex cinema (Sierra Cinema).
A highlight of the “new” Dorsey Marketplace, as singled out by the developers, is the return of the “old” Del Oro Theater “Grass Valley Heart” mural.
The “Grass Valley Heart” mural (which had read “Grass Valley: the heart of the gold industry”) will be recreated on the southern building along Highway 49, on the building’s architectural corner tower, according to the developer.
While the mural is endearing to some longtime locals, it is the polar opposite of the downtown mural “Mine Shift” by John Pugh. It seems to focus on the past, not the future, and I can’t see it drawing too many millennials. Millennials (AKA the children of baby boomers) represent that sweet spot of the 18- to 34-year-old working demographic
New projects are inevitable in Grass Valley, because the city needs to “feed the beast” of city services with new revenue, thanks to its annexations. But the city needs to worry mightily about the execution of “smart growth” — and not wind up like Sonora, a Gold Rush town that has lost some of its charm at the expense of development to generate city revenue. One “smart growth” project in Grass Valley that fell by the wayside was the one proposed years ago at Loma Rica by Phil Carville.
At the end of the day, Grass Valley needs to look around at how its neighbors are branding their towns and decide exactly what it wants to be. Right now, it is sending mixed messages. There are many wonderful “assets”: the historic downtown, wine tasting rooms, some world-class shopping experiences, outdoor amenities.
In addition, the “old order” also needs to embrace “democratization in small towns,” a concept we write about here regularly. I see more of this in Truckee, Nevada City and even Auburn than I do in Grass Valley. We are big fans of Grass Valley: we do much of our shopping there, and our son goes to school there. So I’m hoping the city’s business, civic and elected leaders can come up with the right formula.