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.

Calif.’s best artwork came during the Depression

Moore's mural of Emerald Bay

PASADENA – The glass can be “half full,” even during a depression: Some of the finest artwork depicting California occurred during the Great Depression.

An example is “The Picture Bridge” at the Huntington Hotel, created by British muralist Frank Montague Moore.

Moore was having financial troubles as an artist during the Depression, and he was hired to paint 41 scenes depicting the state’s most scenic spots — Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Death Valley and some of the old Spanish Missions — on a 20-gable redwood foot bridge.

In 1932, Moore was paid $10 per painting and all the meals he and his wife could eat. It took a year to complete the paintings. 

The scenes are beautiful and lovingly restored, bringing back fond memories of California places, including our Sierra foothills. The “Picture Bridge” is a highlight of a visit to the Huntington.

Joking aside about graffiti, Los Angeles has some beautiful murals. You can see them here.

Leo Politi
Leo Politi

Leo Politi is one of my favorite California muralists and artists. His “Blessings of the Animals” in downtown L.A., at Olvera Street, is a classic.

How we can revitalize our historic hotels, too

images26PASADENA – Our family loves to travel all over. But we’re native Californians at heart and deeply appreciate the Golden State’s history.

My uncle owned a mining claim near Downieville, and we camped, fished and panned for gold when I was my son’s age.

For my birthday this weekend, we traveled south, however: Taking a road trip to Pasadena, where I was born and lived until I was a teenager.

My wife, son, puppy and myself (a close-knit group) all holed up at the Huntington Hotel for a deep recession discount, courtesy of It’s close to the hospital where I was born, also named the Huntington, as well as my childhood home.

My friend and I rode our bikes to the grand but aging hotel in the late ’60s and ’70s  to get bumper stickers from KRLA, a radio station just off the lobby. In its brown hues, the hotel looked rather ghostly to us.

The Huntington has a colorful history, as described by a book in my library, “Reflections on Elegance: Pasadena’s Huntington Hotel since 1906.”

The hotel opened in 1907 as the Wentworth Hotel. Contractors were scarce, because most of them left for San Francisco to help rebuild the city after the Great Earthquake.

Railroad barron Henry Huntington bought the hotel in 1911 and hired prominent architect Myron Hunt to restore it.

The Huntington prospered in future decades but almost was doomed in the mid-’80s, because its structure was not up to seismic standards.

Not to let that happen, the community rallied behind a restoration effort, including a citizen’s group, “Defenders of the Huntington Hotel.” In 1987, Pasadena residents approved a ballot measure to demolish the hotel but restore much of its grandeur.

We have two historic hotels in our community, the Holbrooke in Grass Valley and National in Nevada City. Both hotels are up for sale, and one — the Holbrooke — is on the verge of closing.

I’m hoping both will get a longer lease on life under new or expanded ownership, because they are gems to our historic downtowns.

Both hotels are steeped in California history. PG&E was created at the National, and colorful characters including Mark Twain stayed at both. They are among the oldest continually operating hotels west of the Mississippi.

A downtown hotel is an anchor to commerce, whether the city is big or small. Have you ever been to the Commercial Hotel in Elko, Nev? It has a polar bear in the lobby.

In our community, a lot of money — yes, we might have to welcome some out-of-town investors — and a grassroots effort to recognize both of our historic hotel’s importance can lead to needed improvements.

We need to rally around our hotels, just as the citizens of Pasadena did. We can do it but are we up to it?

OMG: 112 nights of detoured truck traffic coming

images-14I blogged earlier this week about a long, hot summer in terms of traffic being detoured through Grass Valley and Nevada City from I-80.

Well, if you thought 40 days and 40 nights was bad aboard Noah’s Ark, how about this? 112 nights of detoured truck traffic through our quaint burghs, courtesy of Caltrans roadwork on I-80 starting this spring.

Here’s more details, from the Rood Center’s Friday memo to the rank-and-file: The Caltrans project will involve major highway construction on I-80 in Placer County from the SR 174/I-80 interchange in Colfax east to the Alta Road undercrossing. 

“The contractor proposes closing I-80 for about 112 nights during 2009,” the memo reads. “There are no planned closures for 2010 work.”

The detours for 2009 — during the night-time, not daytime — are:

•For westbound I-80 traffic, all tractor-trailer and bus traffic will exit at SR 20 and proceed to SR 49 — through Nevada City and Grass Valley — to Bell Road in Auburn, where they will proceed back to I-80.

•For eastbound I-80 traffic, all long-haul trucks will be taken off at the SR 49 interchange and will take SR 49 to SR 20 and back to I-80. All lighter traffic will continue on I-80 to the Bell Road interchange and take Bell Road to SR 49 then will proceed on SR 49 to SR 20 — also through our communities — and back to I-80.

•In addition, passenger vehicles will use a detour from the Colfax SR 174/I-80 interchange to Rollins Lake Road and back onto I-80 at the Secret Town interchange.

Here’s a PDF of a Caltrans brochure explaining the project : I-80 project brochure .

Local Food Coalition worries: “federalizing food”

An email is making the rounds this week from our Local Food Coalition that raises concerns about a House Bill 875 that would merge most government agencies for food safety under a new Food Safety Administration.


The bill stems from the recent salmonella outbreak involving peanuts that killed at least nine people. But some people are worried its underlying motives are to promote “industrial” farming at the expense of independent farms.

The outcome will impact our area. Independent farming and Farmer’s Markets are a growing businesses here, not a shrinking one like most others. The area has about 75 farms and ranches, according to the Local Food Coalition.

“They tell us it is for our own good, that they are simply trying to help, that we should trust them to do what we cannot do for ourselves,” said the coalition’s email, sent to me. “They lead us to ask ‘Will House Bill 875 federalize all farms and ranches in the USA?”

The group is directing readers to a program at 9 a.m. Saturday where Pete Kennedy, acting president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, will discuss the impact of the bill.

The link to Food Chain Radio is here.

“The bill is monstrous on level after level,” according to an editorial in, described as “tough, progressive” news. It points to “the power it would give Monsanto, the criminalization of seed banking, the prison terms and confiscatory fines for farmers, (and) the stripping away of property rights.”

It adds that HR 875 was introduced by Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), whose husband Stanley Greenburg works for Monsanto.

This is one of several competing measures in recent weeks to reform food safety, according to a blog at the Washington Post.

It also points out “it is not the government’s job to make food safe” and that at least a dozen other government agencies also monitor food safety.

For her part, DeLauro argues: “This is the first step in transforming the FDA, bringing our current food safety system out of the past, and recongnizing that every statistic has a human face and a powerful personal story.”

The “food safety” fight  is going to heat up and get some more mainstream media attention in coming weeks, that’s for sure.

(photo from

Brace for lots more truck traffic here this summer

images25While we debate the extra truck traffic that would be generated from reopening the Idaho-Maryland mine, roadwork out on I-80 this summer — another “big dig” — is going to send more truck traffic through our communities and up/down Highway 20 much sooner. Ugh!

The bulk of the traffic is expected to occur Monday through Thursday at night-time from April to September, including the stretch that pierces our hometown. This is one of the biggest detours in a while — and we’ll feel the pain.

I hope the local officials get together with the media to publicize this. People will need to be prepared — to wear earplugs or go on vacation.

Stock celeb Jim Cramer is swimming upstream

images-13I first met now-famous Wall Streeter Jim Cramer in the mid-90s. A friend and collegue of mine at The Chronicle, Herb Greenberg, had gone to work at Cramer’s startup 

My wife and I visited their offices in Manhattan during a vacation — high-priced digs on Wall Street in a different era.

My fondest memory of Jim is sitting on a stool all by himself in the offices of CNET at 8 a.m. sharp, waiting for an Internet radio interview when both were just media “startups.” Jim (a veteran hedge-fund trader) now has his “Mad Money” show on CNBC, and CNET was just sold to CBS.

I don’t depend on Jim to pick stocks, but I think he’s good at spotting trends — and entertaining to boot. Being more of a “bull” than a “bear,” he’s swimming upstream nowadays.

I like reading Cramer’s blogs. Again his humor shows.

“I had almost forgotten money can be made, not just lost, in the stock market,” he wrote Thursday, after a rare triple-digit Dow gain.

Humor helps heal the wounds of a deep recession, where people’s net worth fell an average of 18 percent, erasing four years of gains, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

After all, Jim is part comedian.

‘Let’s make a deal’ raises ire about justice

images8More plea bargains in our local courts, AKA “let’s make a deal,” are raising the ire of residents and victims this week — an ongoing issue.

In one high-profile case, a mom and pop cabinet maker pleaded “no contest” to some of the charges after being accused of ongoing poor workmanship and not reimbursing some funds to clients. His wife could get off the hook all together.

The local contractors association fielded numerous complaints from area residents, including some well-known families. It attempted to shine a light on the allegations, which can hurt the reputation of all contractors.

In another case this week, a local man who was accused of repeated incidents of child molestation pleaded “no contest” to some of the charges. Other charges, including oral copulation on a child, were dropped.

Both are expected to land behind bars (the latter for sure), but for a shorter period of time than otherwise might occur. Is this justice or not?

Plea agreements help the DA meet his budget (fewer legal expenses, trials, etc.) but also make people wonder about the long-term benefits (bringing people to justice, setting examples for others, victims’ rights, the recurring costs for repeat offenders). I’d be willing to spend more to ensure people are brought to justice.

The courts, DAs and public defenders often get unglued when the plea bargains are criticized. I’d like to see some more in-depth reporting — of the short-term and long-term impact. Robyn Moormeister wrote about some egregious examples when she was The Union’s crime reporter — child molesters, multiple DUI offenders and others.

Shining a light on an issue can help bring about reform, rather than just sweeping it under the rug.

New stone cottage in Pioneer Park worth seeing

5ead9202_590038Can’t make it to the Black Forest? Go to Pioneer Park in Nevada City and check out mason Dan Reinhart’s new stone cottage.

The cottage near the tennis courts is a work of art — like something out of Hansel and Gretel. Dan is a neighbor of ours, and we make a point to walk past it whenever we can.

Dan’s been working on the cottage a long time, and it’s been fun to see it being built. My son likes to count the stones.

Dan’s new cottage is a reminder of the wealth of talented crafts people who work here.

(photo from