‘Yoo-hoo,’ are we in a depression yet?

images2A full year passed before the government declared we were officially in a “recession.” Gee, thanks for the heads up.

This got me to thinking: Do you think we are in a depression now? I do.

Big-name companies are almost penny stocks: GE trades for less than the price of a toaster, General Motors trades for less than the price of a spark plug, and Citigroup trades for less than the price of an ATM fee.

The stock market is at a 12-year low; I’m exchanging greetings with friends from that era (at the S.F. Chronicle) on Facebook, a sign of the times. We’re all in our late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Others have died.

The government is spending billions of dollars to bail out AIG, Citicorp and GM, and we’re coming to accept that these once-stalwart businesses are “yesterday’s lettuce.”

In short, we are dealing with systemic issues, not cyclical ones. We are dealing with issues — high leverage on Wall Street, runaway government spending and consumer debt — that we should have dealt with years ago.

For people in our ’40s, like my wife and I, the downturn has defined the rest of our life. “Be frugal,” we are learning, just like our depression-era parents.

Others, the retirees who define the demographics in our area, don’t have enough time left to recoup their losses. Their “nest eggs” are cracked, and many of their children will fend for themselves, rather than inherit some money or real estate.

“This is a time for the history books,”  Jim Coons of Coons Advisors, a financial consultant, told The Associated Press.

Around here, storefronts in our historic downtowns go vacant like clockwork. I keep track on Mill Street as I shuttle my son to school each day.

In Nevada City, my hometown, the building where the Stonehouse, Dos Banditos and Broad Street Furnishings used to be are vacant. Other stores are cutting back their hours.

In both downtowns, the “whisper campaign” is that a slew more businesses are wondering when they will have to shut down. Stay tuned.

Up in our “industrial” area, businesses are closing or cutting back. Our high-tech gem, Grass Valley Group, is on the block.

Foreclosures are on the rise throughout the area, including some from our most notable civic and government leaders.

The unemployment rate is much higher than the stated figure, because many of our out-of-work people (real-estate agents, “consultants,” etc.) don’t qualify for unemployment.

In short, we’re in a depression. We won’t know that for sure for a while, when the government releases “official” figures.

Let’s hope that at that point  we can look back on the carnage with a sense of relief that it’s ending. Don’t get too excited, though: This time around, I don’t expect a quick snap back.

Group forms on Facebook to shape local economy

Here’s a cool scoop: Some of the area’s most enterprising youths have teamed up to launch a group on Facebook that focuses on economic development.

They include the children of some of the area’s most successful business people — from Sierra Star Vineyard to Sierra Foothill Construction — as well as Grass Valley businessman and planning commissioner Rey Johnson as a board member.

Hi Yo!

Grass Valley City Council member Yolanda Cookson also is a member. Check out the cool photo of her and her husband.

Called “The Exchange,” this is “a group of peers collaborating on the social network and economic development of western Nevada County.” 

Hooray!  The people who represent our future are getting together to help shape it. I’m all for it!

“Exchange” formed from the group of youths who have been meeting informally as part of the county Economic Resource Council’s “bring them home campaign.”

It is targeting young people to help make the county more viable. Facebook is a good way to get their message out to other youths too.

Me, my son and "Thinker"

Their page on Facebook is here. I’m a Facebook member, so I asked to join the group. It’s open to all. Here’s my Facebook photo (my son and I and “The Thinker” at the Rodin Museum in Paris, aka Larry, Moe and Curly).

Small newspapers losing legal ad $$$ to Web

images1The Vail Daily, a sister paper of The Union, just received some bad news: Vail’s town government has decided to post the full text of laws on its own Web site, instead of the newspaper, to cut costs.

The switch will save the town $20,000, not exactly chump change.

Needless to say, the Vail Daily’s publisher, Steve Pope, is opposed. Pope said is “unreasonable to expect that the common person” will regularly visit the town’s Web site, whereas most local residents scan his newspaper, according to the Summit News.

If more cities bypass newspapers for legal notices (and this is not the only example), it will be another blow to small-town papers, whose legal ads are about all that’s generating revenue gains in the deepening recession.

Here’s some background about the concern by Steve Outing, a friend and former colleague of mine at the S.F. Chronicle and a new media expert.

The town of Vail should reconsider its policy, in the interest of transparency. Or perhaps officials could advertise the town’s Web site in the Vail Daily’s online edition, directing people to the notices.

In hindsight, the Vail Daily also could have offered a rate cut before it came to this. I hear a lot of complaints from government agencies and nonprofits, which feel “captive” in the legal notice process. Now there’s an alternative.

What’s Terry McAteer up to in Inyo County?

A blast from the past. Our longtime schools superintendent Terry McAteer is up to his eyeballs in Inyo County, where he now runs the schools there. Terry is launching a community reads program and coping with the same budget crisis on his side of the Sierra:

Inyo's outdoor science school
Inyo's outdoor science school

•Terry M. described the cuts to the state schools’ budget as “grim” and “shameful,” with “dire consequenses,” as the Inyo Register reported.

As with our area, the Inyo County schools face a March 15 deadline to notify teachers of layoffs. The schools are one of the county’s largest employers.

•Terry has launched the county’s first community reads program, which he also helped initiate here. “The concept behind the Community Reads program is to celebrate reading one book as an entire community,” he told the paper.

The book is “Farwell to Manzanar,” about the Japanese American War Relocation Camp on Highway 395, south of Bishop — a good choice. You should read the book and visit the camp if you haven’t. It’s a sad side of our history.

• Terry also has backed a newly passed truancy ordinance where students in Bishop who ditch school can wind up in court, with fines of up to $300 and up to 36 hours of community service.

“So many people talk about raising the bar when it comes to education … I want to raise the bar from the bottom up, to bring up that bottom 5 to 10 percent,” he told the paper.

Keep it up!

(photo from school district)

Amid blue, GV stalwart Yuba Blue is expanding

yubablue_logoHere’s an economic bright spot: Mill Street retail stalwart Yuba Blue is expanding next door, capitalizing on the downturn to grow its business, according to my sources. Well done!

Yuba Blue was founded in 1995 by Sarah Lazard, a former neighbor of ours, and it expanded in 1997. Its popular with locals and tourists alike.

As I’ve said before, the upside of vacant storefronts is to provide space for successful businesses to expand at a low rent. Business 101.

I’m reminded that Tess’ Kitchen across the street also did this last year, expanding into a vacant spot occupied by Hedman Furniture.

Yuba Blue “gets” the Web: They have a successful online store at www.yubablueonline.com, complimenting the retail space.

This strategy reminds me of my favorite Grass Valley chocolatier, Dorado Chocolates, which also is expanding in the downturn.

Most merchants here still don’t see the benefit of marrying an Web site with a brick-and-mortar outlet. Despite the fears, the Web often compliments your retail business; it doesn’t cannibalize it.

NC’s year-round farmer’s market forging ahead

top_asparagus1Last month, I blogged about a new “stealth” business venture in Nevada City on South Pine Street, across from Taylor-Drake furnishings, that was underway: a year-round farmer’s market.

The construction, in a long vacant space, is continuing as planned and interest is building, according to my sources.

Imagine a big indoor/outdoor space where area farmers can rent  food stalls to sell fresh fruit and vegetables. In wintertime, plants could be added. Fresh fish, meat or poultry and other products, such as coffee, flowers and wine, could be sold along with produce.

The opportunities for local entrepreneurs are endless.

This reminds me of the Rockridge Market on the Berkeley-Oakland border, a highly popular venture.

This kind of project is just what Nevada City needs: It melds with the city’s milieu (so to speak) and is an ideal venture to draw more locals, not just tourists, to the downtown.

Why we should welcome Truckee into the fold

At a community-wide pow-wow on Tuesday, I was glad to hear about the need to better embrace Truckee as part of a *past due* rethinking of a tourism plan for our county.

Downtown Truckee
Downtown Truckee

I’ve always found it odd that we wouldn’t welcome a city — in our own backyard, no less — that has successfully reinvented itself. We could learn something.

My family and I have been driving through Truckee for decades, and it used to be just a pitstop. Now it’s a destination.

In fact, Truckee was just named one of the best small towns by Sunset magazine, as I blogged earlier. People in Truckee work together.

Truckee has branded itself as an outdoor playground and for being “eco-friendly.” It also has a straightforward, two-pronged tourism plan that works: with a visitor’s bureau (to attract tourists) and a chamber (an advocate for merchants). 

Down here, where being a county government seat helps keep us afloat (and masks our economic deficiencies), we’re often too insular. We also have too many chambers, downtown associations and tourism-related groups — often working at cross purposes.

I hope that changes soon. To compete with other small communities, we need to work together to embrace change and build a more diverse economy.