Loyalton is too tough to die.
The Loyalton City Council met Thursday, 25 March. Council persons Hudson, Bighaus, Ferguson and Sheldon were present; there is an ominously vacant seat on the council.
The Loyalton City Hall was packed with about 38 people who were there to talk about the use of Prop 40 Parks and recreation money. Prop 40, the California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002 is a large general bond act raising $2,600,000,000 for, among other things, money for local parks and recreation projects. The funds are dispersed according to population, and Loyalton, through two portions of that fund, will receive $500,000 to use towards recreation. The money can be split between several projects totaling that amount, or the City could spend it all on one project.
Money in Loyalton is always a cause for celebration, but as always with government money, there are constraints. One important one: the money has to be used this year.
Several plans were suggested, and some were discussed by Ray Kruth, EcoLogic engineer in service to the City.
Many projects are "do-able" now. For example, a bathroom for the park, improved playground equipment, bleachers for the baseball field, irrigation, lights for the baseball field, a larger parking lot at the Social Hall, and similar projects. These would be quick, easy, and spend the money fast. The average for each project was about $100,000 dollars.
This editor favored but did not forward buying the hotel at the bargain price its condition warrants, and then tearing it down. That alone would improve Loyalton, but thereafter the ground could be leveled and grass put in. Summer vendors could put up portable kiosks, particularly around the 4th of July and Christmas. This wasn’t suggested, and perhaps five hundred grand simply isn’t enough for such a project.
But, it remains to be seen if it is enough for the project favored by the noisiest people in the room.
The public input got off to a great start when well known local Mona Trigg rose to take the podium. Loyalton is dying, she said. The crowd agreed.
Loyalton, dead or alive
Is Loyalton dying? It’s something that’s heard often; this reporter has said it.
There is a good case to be made on both sides. The depression has hit Loyalton hard, as it has most small towns. Industry is dead, and nobody has any ideas, save for zooming steam trains, lush golf courses, and mansions ringing the Valley. Even St. Jude wouldn’t weigh in on those odds.
Without a significant industry, how can a town survive? As young people move away, the schools decline, and income generation also declines, since the pensioners who remain generally are not big spenders like families are. With the schools in decline, it becomes more difficult to attract professional people to the county. The downward spiral, once begun, is tough to reverse. The town is simply too small to be resilient; though it is technically an "incorporated city," the Census Bureau considers a "city" to have at least 50,000 residents. It would take 55 Loyaltons to make one city.
On the other hand, how can a town be dead when there are people living there who love it? There is more to being a city than money. Loyalton does have children, strong smart kids who deserve what every other kid in California has. A town that invests in its children isn’t dead. A town that has hope isn’t dead.
Ms. Trigg went on to complain that people are too negative. She also complained to the sitting city council of the lack of maintenance to the Loyalton City Pool back when it was open. That wasn’t a very clear point to this reporter. She complained that maintenance, in general, is poor.
Her remarks on maintenance strongly supported the case that Loyalton is, indeed, dying. As any poor family can tell you, maintenance is the first thing to go. You can afford to keep the car licensed and insured, but can’t keep tires on it. You can afford to have a house, but can’t afford to paint it. Even the human body shows that trend: as the vitality of life diminishes the heart pumps on, but healing slows way down, cells are not replaced, and eventually the body spirals and dies.
Yet, Ms. Trigg expressed a frustration that many in Loyalton feel, and while the sitting City Council has almost no control over the past history or current economics, they are assigned to receive community ire. At one point she turned to the crowd and asked, "am I doing good?" She was, they replied with one voice. Ms. Trigg complained of the town’s poor fortune and admonished the Council to make bold moves.
That created a mood in the room, and Stan Hardeman, Superintendent of Schools and SPJUSD, leapt to the podium. The town is not dying, he announced; not everyone agreed.
Mr. Hardeman oversees almost as many empty schools as occupied, and he made a grand and dramatic pitch to get rid of one of them: the Loyalton Middle School, also known as the "junior high school".
"I’d like to offer the town the old Middle School," he said. He assured everyone "it can be eventually self sustaining." He described that the schools would lease the gym back, though he was somewhat vague about that. He said it has a library, kitchen, and theater. When Mayor Hudson noted the City didn’t own the building, Mr. Hardeman had a deal for the Council: they could have it for one American dollar.
The building is in great shape, he said. Oh, sure, you can’t let children in it, but otherwise, she’s a beauty. The empty school could be a great resource, he said.
Essentially, the building is not earthquake safe, the bathrooms and other areas are not handicap accessible, there are some other little problems.
There was strong support in the room for taking over the Middle School and turning it into a community center, with a teen center, some private or county offices, maybe some businesses.
For a moment, one could almost see the new Loyalton Community Center spring up, with joyful noise coming from the teen center and money coming from the offices.
No one mentioned that the meeting was taking place in the Loyalton Social Hall, next to the skate park and the museum. Who would people both the current facilities and the new one? No one asked.
Then, Tim Beals took the stand. Mr. Beals, who is the Sierra County Director of Odds and Ends, has a great deal of experience working with bond funds. He provided some constraints:
First, time is very important; there isn’t much left and if the City doesn’t spend the money in time, they lose it.
The City won’t be reimbursed for funds spent prior to getting the project on the table, so they should be careful how they spend money up front.
There couldn’t be private offices unless Prop 40 money wasn’t spent on them. They could only apply the five hundred grand to projects that were public and would be for the next 20 years.
There has to be a business plan, it has to make sense, and it has to indicate that the city can support the project with maintenance and other funds.
Whatever project is chosen, the process requires the projects are adopted with a resolution, then an application is made to the state.
Mr. Beals mentioned some projects which were funded and then taken over by non-profit organizations, such as the historic Kentucky mine, the culturally important Yuba Theater project, the great new Calpine Park facilities.
He pointed out that it might be that only a portion of the kitchen, gym, and bathrooms might be eligible on the Middle School project.
Mr. Beals mentioned that the Middle School project would be difficult, fraught with details and on a very short time schedule. He mentioned that many of the other ideas, the improvements at the park and softball field, and so on, would be relatively easy; the projects would go right through (they would need engineers and so on) and would easily meet the requirements, and would be fairly easy to accomplish. However, if the City wanted to take all or part of the Middle School, that would be possible, though time was short. Mr. Beals encouraged them to speak face to face with the area administrator of the Prop 40 money, to get his impression and to learn what he would want to fund the project. He cautioned the Council: "they do audit."
The Council clearly seemed to prefer the smaller, more certain projects, but the room was against them.
Mr. Hardeman took the lead: let’s have a citizen’s committee. Tom Dotta agreed; he pointed out there probably wouldn’t be any more bond funds for awhile, and they should move on a big project. Brooks Mitchell and others agreed from the room. Bob Macey had spoken already on the importance of having a significant project. The weight of those present, Loyalton residents and non residents alike, wanted the Middle School project.
And, so, oddly, an evening that began with a litany of failures of maintenance ended, not with projects that were easy, quick, and were either maintenance or modest improvements, but with a large project with only a modest chance of success.
To this reporter, it looked like the room had been grasped by Hope. Hope, as we know, is an uplifting narcotic, one that obscures the pain of the situation and gives the dying the energy to make a last try.
The Citzen’s group, hopefully composed of Mona Trigg, Brooks Mitchell, Tom Dotta and Bob Macey, has these tasks to accomplish:
1. Do a rapid and complete assessment of the building to determine:
2. Report back to the City Council in a timely manner SO THAT IF THE MIDDLE SCHOOL PROJECT DOESN’T WORK the Council will have sufficient time to choose some of the more modest projects so as not to lose the money for good.
It’s a big task, one of hope. Everyone’s best wishes go with the project; the citizen’s committee has very little time to accomplish a lot of work, and if they fail, the city loses five hundred thousand dollars.
The Prospect agrees: give hope a chance. Hope might save Loyalton, somehow. On the other hand, the citizen’s committee now holds the City’s Prop 40 funds. Let’s hope they move fast.