Is Hastert arrest just the tip of the iceberg?

I keep hearing such speculation in the wake of Grass Valley attorney and Loan Sense businessman Thomas Hastert’s arrest for allegedly “brazenly deceiving” investors and borrowers in our county and neighboring ones.

Seventy-three criminal counts were filed against Hastert in Nevada County Superior Court last month for alleged embezzlement, securities fraud, conspiracy and filing false documents.

Hard-money loans — financing where a borrower receives funds secured by the value of a parcel of real estate — were commonplace in the go-go days. Many of the deals unraveled when the market plunged.

Hastert alone allegedly brokered more than 270 hard-money loans.

The investigation into the Hastert case is ongoing. Investigators often have a hard time with these cases unless victims come forward.

“White collar” crime is tedious and time-consuming work, requiring special expertise. But it often touches a lot of people, so it is worth the time.

Tanning salons booming for people — and pot

images27Despite warnings about skin cancer, a growing number of tanning salons are popping up around here.

We’re not alone. In many cities, tanning salons exceed Starbucks, according to a new study by San Diego State University. 

“We knew that there were a lot of indoor tanning facilities, but we didn’t really know they would exceed the number of Starbucks and McDonalds in most cases,” the researcher told CNBC.

Around here, the Starbucks are decreasing — the one in Albertsons in “Burger Basin” closed, for example.

Tanning salons have other practical uses. In Modesto, police found 1,300 pot plants growing under the bright lights in a tanning salon this week. Imagine that.

Will “green wine” boost our tourism?

murphyslogogreenThe Southern Sierra foothills town of Muphys rang in St. Patrick’s Day with green wine.

It will hold a festival this coming weekend to showcase its homegrown wines, as well as a parade, children’s activities, food and music.

“We feel like we’re a small town, like Mayberry, but we’re a bit more fun and eccentric than Mayberry,” Michelle Plotnik, president of the Murphys Business Assn., told The Los Angeles Times.

The festival is generating some ink in the Times and other publications — a marketing coup for the hamlet. Murphys also was featured in The Wall Street Journal last year.

It’s tough competing with neighboring Sierra foothill towns for tourism dollars in a recession. It’s also a reminder that we always need to be thinking outside of the box and reinventing ourselves.

Nevada City Gas caught in mandate pickle?

I blogged last month that Nevada City Gas, a fixture in town, had temporarily closed. I’m a fan because it’s “old school”: An attendant pumps your gas and cleans your windshield with a big smile. 

Last time I spoke to the owner, she said the station would have to retrofit its pumps to meet state mandates as of April 1. It would require some out-of-pocket costs.

As it turns out, lots of independent gas stations are struggling to keep up with the state mandates for updating nozzles, including ones in Truckee, amid a recession.

Lawmakers are considering offering a one-year extension because of the tough economic times. Let’s hope the idea gets serious consideration. Small businesses are the engines of economic growth.

Too many tourism cooks in the kitchen

“Nevada County selected for major conference,” the Union reported in a front-page headline this morning. The gathering will be held in May of next year, according to an official of the Grass Valley/Nevada City Convention and Visitors Bureau, the article read.

Sound familiar? It should. “Nevada County selected for historic conference,” the paper reported in an identical front-page headline and article last October. The conference will be held in May of next year, according to an official from the county Economic Resource Council, this article read.

It’s like “deja vu, all over again, ” to quote Yogi Berra, with the exception of different officials speaking. Isn’t one enough?

Officials step up effort to hire local contractors

As I’ve blogged before, one of the best ways to jump start our local economy is to spend more dollars on local contractors — one of our area’s biggest employers.

NC's Sierra College campus
NC's Sierra College campus

An expansion is underway at Sierra College, and officials are working on a plan to step up use of local contractors, according to my sources. Meetings are ongoing.

The county also is going to check with Sierra College to improve its use of local contractors, county executive Rick Haffey said in a memo.

Last fiscal year, 59 percent of contract dollars went to Nevada County firms, compared with 64 percent this year, Haffey said.

I applaud this effort and hope it continues.

Local contractors sometimes get criticized for being too expensive, but I’m skeptical. As any homeowner knows, you can receive a “low-ball” bid for work and then wind up paying a lot more because of costly change orders.

Getty Trust, owner of Loma Rica, slashes budget

Loma Rica

The Getty Trust, a museum giant but also the owner of the 452 acre Loma Rica Ranch in Grass Valley, is slashing its operating budget by nearly 25 percent for the coming fiscal year because of severe losses.

The cuts are “an emergency response to investment losses that have totaled $1.5 billion since July and nearly $2 billion since mid-2007,” according to a front-page article in this morning’s L.A. Times. (I’d been hearing the same thing for a while.)

The art institution could “fall off a huge cliff” if it delayed drastic cuts and hard times continued, according to its president.

A blog is chronicling the human factor, including some disgruntled workers.

The trust had bet heavily on “alternative investments,” including hedge funds, private partnerships, raw materials and distressed companies.

The Loma Rica housing project — which has taken longer than planned to win an OK — is still going ahead. The organic farm is open, too, though some staff cutbacks or increased monitoring of the project would not be a surprise.

I like the “smart” housing project — a lot of it is walkable. As I’ve blogged before, it would be a shame if rancor about whether to reopen the Idaho-Maryland mine would trip up other projects, including Loma Rica.

Smart growth is better than no growth or ill-planned growth. We’ve suffered from both in the past.