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Rio Dell Rising

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We're all just poor folks and we just want low-income people here."

Adam Dias is wearing a battered camo hat, Carhartt pants and a hoodie. He rubs his goatee and then grins, confirming that his words are spoken with tongue firmly in cheek. He's one of eight members of the Eagle Prairie Arts District sitting around a table at the Rio Dell Chamber of Commerce. On the agenda tonight: misconceptions about Rio Dell (which Dias and others are trying to rebrand as an arts community), the upcoming Dahlia festival, and the search for a new city manager. Other members of EPAD chime in with how they think Rio Dell is perceived by the rest of Humboldt County.

"Rio Dull," says one.

"Drug town," says another.

"A bedroom community."

"A brothel community." Everyone chortles.

In fact, Rio Dell, former rip-roaring party town for lumberjacks crossing the river from Scotia, is home to several historic buildings that used to be brothels. It's one of several attractions — including the excellent weather, the proximity to the redwoods, the relatively low crime rate (despite the reputation) and the shortest highway in California (Eagle Prairie Bridge, between Scotia and Rio Dell) — that a new generation of hometown enthusiasts like Dias are hoping to capitalize on in order to attract new businesses and tourists.

Jaime Gay is the co-owner, along with her husband Joshua, of The Mill, a mixed martial arts studio and one of the city's newest small businesses. She says they were attracted to the city's "vintage charm."

"It felt like home to me," she says. "There's a good family atmosphere here. I felt it immediately. A lot of my friends begged us not to start a business here. They didn't think we'd succeed."

But they have, and The Mill continues to thrive. Gay attributes much of their success to an environment that welcomes and supports small businesses.

Thanks to matching funds from the city, the chamber of commerce was able to secure a business incubator grant from the Humboldt Area Foundation. The storefront vacancy rate in the city dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent within the space of a year. Rio Dell's main drag, Wildwood Avenue, is fairly bustling with new small businesses, cafes, antique shops and art galleries. A chain store called Dollar General will also soon open its doors. The town now has a monthly arts night — Arts on the Avenue — and progress is being made on some cosmetic touches that might entice travelers coming from the Avenue of the Giants to stay and spend money.

But it might be premature to call this latest incarnation of the "Warm-Hearted City" a renaissance. Dias and his cohort are hardly the first to try and build on Rio Dell's potential, and they're definitely not the first to be stymied by what appears to be the region's biggest obstacle to lasting change: political dysfunction.

While the rich history of the region dates back to the 1870s, Rio Dell was only incorporated as a city in 1965. Until then, Rio Dell, or Wildwood, was a cluster of small unincorporated communities that housed millworkers from Scotia. A view from the top of the bluffs is testament to the organic growth of the region. To the south, former company town Scotia boasts neat lines of cookie-cutter houses. To the north, Rio Dell sprawls. Strong leadership and a definitive vision for the young town's economic growth have been relatively late to arrive.

There have been 17 city managers for Rio Dell in the past 31 years, with an average tenure of less than two years. This is not including interim city managers, a position which newly retired Jim Stretch has filled a total of three times. The position has been plagued by scandal, funding crises and rumors of a hostile working environment. Only four of the city managers hired to the office had pre-existing city or county manager experience.

Dias says the intense turnover rate is a major handicap in efforts to rebuild and rebrand Rio Dell. A larger city staff with a well-established knowledge base and infrastructure would be able to sustain changes despite turnover, but tiny Rio Dell doesn't have that foundation.

Dias cites as an example his efforts, through the chamber, to get portions of Wildwood Avenue rezoned to accommodate an arts district in 2011. All the paperwork was in place, he says, when then-City Manager Ron Hendrickson left. The rezoning was pushed back another year, severely delaying progress.

Dias was one of several residents unenthusiastic about how the city conducted its recent search for a new city manager.

"It was a real slap in the face that no one local was even interviewed," he says. "I just want somebody who has experience and who wants to be here. Somebody who wants to continue our progress."

He added that he and several other chamber members fear a non-local candidate will merely use the position as a resume-builder before moving on to greener pastures. To strengthen the appeal of the position, the Rio Dell City Council increased the salary to about $106,000 annually and enlisted a headhunting firm to find applicants from outside the area. More than 400 candidates had applied at the time of the position's closing on April 4, and interviews extended two months beyond the time the city had estimated. Ultimately Kyle Knopp, a Humboldt State University graduate with extensive experience as the Mendocino County assistant chief executive officer, was chosen and assumed office on July 21.

City Councilmember Gordon Johnson spoke with the Journal shortly after welcoming Knopp to the position.

"He's going to be good for the city of Rio Dell," Johnson said. "He's a problem solver and that's what we need."

Johnson added that he was reassured by the sight of thriving small businesses and said that he took exception to anyone who thought Rio Dell wasn't business friendly.

Knopp adopted a diplomatic tone for his first day on the job, saying he was looking forward to "scoring some wins for the city."

"It's a fulfillment of a dream for me to work in local government, especially in a small town," he said in his address to the city council.

One applicant passed over for the position of city manager was chamber member Nick Angeloff. He was instrumental in securing the business incubator grant as well as several other small community-building projects, such as renovating the town's Little League field.

On the day we spoke, Angeloff was philosophical about not being interviewed for the position, saying that ultimately the headhunting firm must have decided his experience working with local tribes wasn't relevant to the city's specifications. He says the chamber is concerned that some city policies are working against efforts to build economic stability in Rio Dell, particularly a hike in wastewater fees which would "significantly" impact local businesses.

"We already have the highest rate in the county," he says. "We need to promote businesses and expand our base instead of raising fees."

Despite setbacks, Angeloff is enthusiastic about the area's future. He cites the enormous community support received for the Little League field renovation as an example of how invested people are in helping their town succeed. Material, labor and financial support were all donated by local businesses and community members. The first game saw a huge turnout, and support continues.

"People are going out there and mowing the lawn without telling anybody, just out of the goodness of their hearts," he says. "It's a big success."

He adds that he's currently working to extend the business incubator grant to implement an Eel River Valley agricultural business park at the Eel River Sawmills property, just north of Rio Dell.

"There used to be about 2,000 jobs on each side of Rio Dell and there's absolutely no reason there can't be 2,000 jobs on each side again," he says. "We've shown it in the past. It's not going to be one industry, it's going to be many."

Soon, because of the Eagle Prairie Arts District's efforts, the town's main drag will feature sculptures by visiting artists. At his own gallery on Wildwood Avenue, Dias continues his ode to the place he calls home.

"We have bald eagles!" he says. "We have great river access, beautiful views, a rich history. I can't believe people haven't gotten over the stigma of Rio Dell yet."

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