‘Go wider rather than deeper’ in small towns

The recession has slammed our rural area: We’ve lost our two biggest car dealerships, anchor stores are vacant, layoffs are ongoing and real-estate developments are in foreclosure.

We’re not alone. In many small communities across the country, “stalwarts of these often-patriarchal areas are falling, changing the civic landscape while leaving financial and social commitments behind,” the Wall Street Journal reports in Saturday’s paper.

“The smaller the community, the bigger the effect,” a sociology professor told the paper.

As a result, some civic leaders and charities are casting a wider net. “Now instead of going to one person, you go to three people and get smaller donations,” the United Way director in a small Georgia town told the paper.

Deep recessions expose the vulnerabilities of communities, not just businesses. In the case of small towns, it’s being too dependent on a handful of longtime patriarchs.

There’s an upside, though: bringing more people into the mix creates a more collaborative, inclusive culture, making your community stronger.

Welcome Happy Morning!

Arthur Sullivan
Arthur Sullivan
Happy Easter everyone!

When I was growing up, my father and I used to belt out this Episcopal Easter hymn, “Welcome Happy Morning!”

The song is here. The lyrics are definitely “old school.” The melody is from Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. A guy named John Ellerton translated the words from Latin into English in 1868.

One guy who remembered the song was Will Hearst III, who besides being a good acquaintance is on the board of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Speaking of old school, sometimes we used to go to an Easter service at Grace Cathedral and brunch at the Big Four at the Huntington Hotel, across the street.

This Easter I think we’ll go to Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City. We waiver between that and St. Patrick’s in Grass Valley. We also waiver about our son’s religious education.

The Episcopal church has come a long way since the 1800s: the naming of gay men and women into the clergy has raised a ruckus but is obviously the right thing to do.

My father died two years ago and his birthday would have been this Easter Sunday. Happy Birthday Dad! His obit is here.

Whatever your religion, I hope you enjoy the day. Spending time with your family and loved ones, or partaking in a favorite activity, is what counts. I wrote earlier about the popularity of Kosher Coke.

The Union joins the e-newsletter bandwagon

The Union is joining its sister papers in launching e-newsletters — a further shift online.

As I wrote last week, the Tahoe papers are launching a weekend newsletter.

Now The Union is hopping on board: “The Union Insider is coming soon, so sign up now for the daily e-mails keeping you in the know. E-mails will give subscribers a daily dose of what the newsroom is working on, weather, traffic, events in the evening, special features and local deals.”

Online-only publications long have relied on e-mail newsletters to boost traffic. You need to register, so it’s a good way to “qualify” your audience to advertisers — or try to. You need to provide your name, e-mail address and zip code. You also are asked to provide your cell-phone number and carrier.

The hard part is “monetizing” the traffic. This requires a cultural change in advertising staffs. It’s also risky: In a market like this, your core customers are older print subscribers. Can they migrate online?

Can Grass Valley learn from Silicon Valley?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m working with a new media startup that “reverse publishes” blogs into print.

We distribute a free full-color publication in four major cities in “beta,” with ad rates that are cheaper than traditional newspapers or magazines. We pay the bloggers from the advertising. It’s a profitable business model, not a “legacy” one.

We’re also generating some “buzz,” with write ups in the New York Times, Editor & Publisher and some other publications, with no p.r. staff.

We definitely have the wind at our backs. A recession is an ideal time for a startup, too. My experience with CNET, a successful startup that was sold to CBS last year, is a good learning experience. My longtime experience in newspapers helps too — knowing all the pitfalls.

It also means some travel time, however. Being a startup inevitably means a trek to Silicon Valley, home of the VCs, law firms and other businesses that you need for support.

We’ve signed up a lawyer from Wilson Sonsini, who respresents Google, as our lawyer. He will help with corporate governance and copyright issues, in return for a stake in the firm. Our printer (and an investor) is a longtime major printer in Chicago, among the nation’s largest. Our ad guy runs a big L.A. firm.

We’re also hooking up with VCs, including the guy who helped launch Yahoo and Google. I have many contacts from my years at CNET and The Chronicle that are coming in handy. People remember you.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve watched Santa Clara County (with its fruit orchards) grow into Silicon Valley.

I graduated from Saratoga High in the late ’70s. Newspapers were more in touch with their readers then: My photo ran on the front page of the San Jose paper for winning a $500 high-school journalism scholarship at San Jose State. Nowadays, papers probably wished they didn’t abandon that strategy.

Silicon Valley (once called Santa Clara County) has changed too. My dad worked for Stanford Research Institute, so I also am familiar with Sand Hill Road and how it grew up. My grandma lived in Campbell, still one of the area’s more affordable communities.

When I head back “up the hill,” however, I’m happy to call Grass Valley home. We have a lot of potential to bring more high-tech and green businesses here, with financial support from the Bay Area (not just retirees who move here and tourists).

Trouble is, the area has a reputation for being too far off the beaten path. Having lived here for four years, I can see the problem: The long timers want to “run the show.” We’re an insular bunch and not very welcoming.

My hope was that the local newspaper could provide an independent voice of reason and insight. But it’s struggling as much as any business, so you pull in your horns and become more predictable.

In short, what we need is some leadership — from government, civic and business leaders — to help raise our visibility.

It’s possible to embrace the positive aspects of places such as Silicon Valley (innovation, risk and “out of the box” thinking) without suffering from the “oh so negative” (traffic, runaway housing prices and long commutes).

Attracting a business such as Huntington Labs from Mountain View is a step in the right direction. I’m proud of Gil Matthew of the county Economic Resource Council for his efforts in this case, a behind-the-scenes story that has been underplayed.

We just have to be open to change.

Mine remediation pilot project wins support

Here are some highlights from the county’s Friday memo:

•The federal government and cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City are supporting a plan to better deal with contaminants on abandoned mine lands. All too often, the Feds clean up the land, then it gets re-contaminated by a private property source.

“The (Feds) would like to develop a model of how to deal with contaminants that involve several property owners as they predict the problem will occur more frequently in the future,” according to the memo.

A pilot project is being considered for the Hogue Mine and Davis Mill site near Bloomfield Road. It contaminates Lake Vera, a popular swimming hole. Grant funding will be pursued.

•The grassroots effort to work on a plan for the long-term retention of the courthouse in downtown Nevada City now involves the county. “We may be able to leverage our equity interest in the current facility to support a future project,” according to the memo.

•A new Public Health Officer is expected to be appointed in the next week.

•Caltrans will be piloting all the trucks detoured onto Highway 20 from the ongoing major road project to insure safe speeds are maintained — a growing concern. A brochure explaining the process is at I-80 detour.

Kosher Coke: It’s the real thing

Kosher Coke is a hit this Passover season, both with Jewish and non-Jewish people.

It’s made with sugar from cane or beets, instead of high-fructose corn syrup that Coke has been using for roughly 30 years. Some people swear it’s as close as you can get to the original formula.

“Even people who aren’t Jewish, they like Coca-Cola better at Passover,” Rabbi Mordechai Levin, executive director of the Toronto-based Kashruth Council of Canada, told the Toronto Star.

“It’s been flying out of the store,” Rabbi Alan Schwartz told USA Today.

Coke denies the taste difference.

Kosher Coke has a yellow cap on the 2-liter bottles marked with an O circling a U next to a P and the words “kosher for Passover” in Hebrew.

“Community policing” in my hometown

My son and I just returned from a fun Friday morning outing in Nevada City, where we “shopped locally.”

We ate breakfast at the South Pine Cafe ($20) and bought a pair of Merrell shoes at Fur Traders ($80).

Our 45-minute outing cost us an extra $25, because a ticket was on our windshield (and the car next to us) for parking in a space next to South Pine. “Posted private parking. Owners request,” read the ticket from one Officer Ellis, with the box “all other violations” checked.

The owner must be Taylor-Drake, where the parking lot largely was vacant. The store had been open for less than 15 minutes.

Our bad. We’ll drop off a $25 check at City Hall, which just happens to be around the corner from the parking spot.

But here’s a thought: Perhaps the merchants and police could get together and collaborate on a more “pro-shop locally” parking plan in the worst recession in generations.

It reminds me of when the Grass Valley police were cracking down on merchants for putting signs in the road to drum up some business in the downturn. Enforcement has lightened up since it was publicized.

“Community policing” is a balancing act: Weighing the need to enforce the law with the risk of shooting yourself in the foot. It’s a judgment call for sure.