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At an economic development conference, business leaders promote the power of positive thinking

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If we want to improve the economy here on the North Coast then we better watch what we're saying. Because our incessant bitching and in-fighting is scaring off outsiders and majorly bumming out our kids.

Also: We really ought to talk more about redwood trees -- those things are our meal ticket.

Those two messages emerged from the Redwood Region Economic Summit last Friday at Humboldt State University. The six-hour summit, financed through the county's economic development division, attracted the North Coast elite like power to money. Among those swarming were business owners (Patrick Cleary of Lost Coast Communications, Dan Johnson of the Danco Group, architect John Ash) and politicians (county supervisor Mark Lovelace, Eureka councilmember Marian Brady, Arcata councilmembers Mark Wheetley and Alex Stillman), plus government officials and more or less everyone involved in local economic development.

The goal of the gathering was to reexamine and re-energize the regional approach to creating jobs and growing the overall economy. In recent years that approach, in a nutshell, has been to nurture new and existing businesses, particularly those that fall into the "Targets of Opportunity" -- six sectors of the local (and, ahem, legal) economy that have shown exceptional growth in jobs, wages and firms since 1990.

Those sectors, in order of size, are: diversified health care (nurses, dental hygienists); building and system construction and maintenance (carpenters, electricians); specialty agriculture, food and beverages (companies like Cypress Grove Chevre and Eel River Organic Beef); investment support services (loan officers, sales reps); management and innovation services (accountants, computer geeks); and niche manufacturing (Holly Yashi, Marimba One, Kokatat).

The upshot? Those sectors are still our best bets, even if they weren't immune to the recession. Jacqueline Debets, the Workforce Investment Board's executive director, laid out the latest numbers. Between 1995 and 2009 Humboldt County lost 15.5 percent of its businesses -- a sobering statistic. But within the targets of opportunity we lost only ("only") 8.8 percent. We also lost 6.1 percent of our jobs during that period, but the target sectors grew jobs at a rate of 14.6 percent. Meanwhile wages within those sectors increased by 20 percent, compared to 6.7 percent overall.

Dawn Elsbree, coordinator of the Headwaters Fund -- the county's $22 million pot of economic development money -- revealed some preliminary data from an ongoing survey of local business leaders. By and large these leaders have been painting Humboldt County as a place rife with challenges, from transportation barriers (namely lousy airline and STAA truck access) to political resistance (the "no growth" attitudes of many residents) to complex and expensive regulatory processes.

There it was: the bitching and in-fighting that's discouraging young people and outsiders alike. Keynote speaker Andrew Davis, a bow-tied, hypermanic marketing consultant from Boston, said that the business community here needs to get its act together. In order to succeed, he said, local leaders of industry must cooperate and project a unified, positive message. He called this concept "participation creation," which he explained as "working together, especially in the digital world, to build a bigger brand in your community."

What's Humboldt County's brand? No, not marijuana. We may think that's what we're best known for, Davis said, but in fact we'd be better off hitching our economic cart to the redwood trees. To prove his point he showed line graphs created by the program Google Insights, which allows you to compare the frequency with which various search terms are typed into Google over time. The lines representing our most famous products -- "Humboldt Fog," "Kokatat," "Emerald Triangle" -- were dwarfed by the line representing "redwoods."

"I guarantee you, redwoods are more popular than marijuana," Davis said.

Incidentally, Davis had never heard of Humboldt's weed reputation (which he dismissed as a media myth designed to sell newspapers), but his brother-in-law in Florida informed him that "Emerald Triangle" is our region's brand. If you replace the term "Emerald Triangle" with "marijuana," the resulting Google Insights graph resoundingly disproves Davis' assertion -- "marijuana" beats "redwoods" by a factor of more than 25-to-one. But we digress.

Davis' larger point was about shaping our image, and he offered a few examples of how not to do it. Recently, author Wells Tower profiled Humboldt County in the New York Times Magazine ("The High Life," March 26), which has a readership exceeding 1.5 million. The comments section below the story was peppered with Humboldtians quibbling over whether or not Cecil's in Garberbille really sells a $72 steak, as the story claimed. "Arguing over a steak in comments does nothing but make you look like driveling weirdos," Davis said.

He offered no specific suggestions for how to achieve this utopian vision of civilized and unified Internet discourse.

Similarly, when he watched the clever "Hooked On Humboldt" YouTube videos produced by the Humboldt County Convention and Visitor's Bureau, they left him cold. "I thought, 'This is a weird community.'" (True or not, he doesn't view weirdness as a marketable commodity.)

Instead, he argued, local businesses should create a "digital community" by connecting their websites and products to one another and pushing a consistent, positive message. For example, he suggested that every Danco home could come equipped with a C. Crane radio. "Build the brand presence and the whole community will benefit," Davis said.

Unfortunately, a positive message ignores some stark realities. For example, nearly 20 percent of Humboldt County lives in poverty, and our most recent unemployment rate was 11.2 percent. The impact of our communal pessimism was revealed Friday afternoon, when a group of local high school students presented the results of a survey they'd conducted among their fellow teens. "We learned that there's a really negative view about the Humboldt County economy -- there are no jobs," said Kristyn Payne, an incoming senior at Arcata High.

She pointed out that students don't receive any formal education on economics until their senior year, at which point many students are checked out with "senioritis." So their information comes primarily from the older generation, Payne said. With microphone in hand, she addressed the crowd of roughly 100 adults. "When you talk about the economy, just watch what you're saying around youths, because we don't know anything else."

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