Heads Watered

Humboldt County spends a chunk of its economic development funds



On Tuesday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors declared its support for agricultural tourism, upscale lumber products and kids with big, fast computers, and it laid some money on the table to help those things flourish across our land. These were the big winners in this go-round of disbursements from the Headwaters Fund, the county's unique $20 million pot of economic development dollars.

This year -- the 2009-10 fiscal year -- the Headwaters Fund halved the amount for its annual competitive grants, from $300,000 to $150,000. The grants are funded by interest received on the fund's principal, and poor interest rates this year resulted in less money available for the program. The competitive grants are mainly intended to provide support to one or more of the county's "base industry clusters." There are nine such clusters identified in Prosperity!, the county's official economic development strategy, which was first adopted in 1999.

In addition, this year the grant competition was split into three rounds of funding. The Board of Supervisors awarded grants under the first of these rounds Tuesday, upon receiving recommendations from the Headwaters Fund Board -- the appointed body that administers the fund on the county's behalf. The deadline for applications under the second round is Feb. 1.

The largest grant this time was given to the Fortuna Union High School District, which got $48,000 to kickstart its "Eel River Digital Media Academy," a program to provide students and community members with training and certification in digital design and multimedia tools. The Digital Media Academy, which is looking to set up shop on the Fortuna High campus, will be staffed by Fortuna High teachers and will sport 20 high-end computers loaded with multimedia software. The award of the Headwaters Grant leaves the Digital Media Academy only $26,700 away from securing its $150,000 budget.

The Board of Supervisors approved two other modest competitive grants Tuesday -- one to boost tourism, the other to seek new sources of revenue from local forests.

The local University of California Cooperative Extension office, in cooperation with the Humboldt County Convention and Vistors Bureau, received a $15,531 grant to explore the expansion of Humboldt County "ag, nature and heritage tourism." The idea, according to the grant application, is to promote the development of tourism opportunities on Humboldt County farms, ranches and vineyards.

"We see that there is a demand out there," HCCVB Executive Director Tony Smithers told the board. "The market is looking for tourism products that give people authentic experiences and connect them back not only to nature, but our working heritage on farms." Fifty Humboldt County landowners have expressed interest in the program, which would also include a component that would catalog the county's historic barns.

Seth Zuckerman of the Mattole Restoration Council gave the board a brief presentation on the history of that group, which received a $16,247 grant designed to find new markets for working timberlands. Their proposal focused on developing three nontraditional sources of revenue -- carbon credits, high-grade "artisanal woods" and new outlets for hardwoods species such as tan oak. Zuckerman said that the effort would dovetail nicely with the MRC's existing streamlined Programmed Timber Environmental Impact Report program, which allows for a cheaper, streamlined process for Mattole-area timber harvesters who agree to employ light-touch logging practices.

Before moving to approve the three grants, Supervisor Mark Lovelace noted that the latter two projects had a lot in common, insofar as they could help owners of timber or agricultural land. "Again and again, we hear the alternative is subdivision or some other kind of development, which is not beneficial to the county's goals, or to the goals of the landowners," he said. "So in both of these cases, helping landowners find other ways to realize value off their land on an ongoing basis is a great thing."

The Headwaters Fund board declined to fund three other proposals, but one of them caught the eye of Supervisor Jill Duffy and a few people in the audience. That was a request for $24,870 from the Northcoast Regional Land Trust to initiate what it calls a "Voluntary Oak Woodlands Conservation Program." According to the application, the program would be a first step to make the owners of Humboldt County's estimated 340,000 acres of oak lands eligible for state conservation funding. Duffy questioned Headwaters Board staffer Dawn Elsbree about the Headwaters Fund Board's rationale for excluding the oak project from its list of recommendations. Elsbree said only that members of the board did not rate the project as highly as the others, according to the decision matrix that Headwaters Fund employs. In addition, the board wanted to keep some of this year's $150,000 available for the next two rounds of funding.

A compromise was struck in the end: The Board of Supervisors voted to send the Oak Conservation Program back to the Headwaters Fund Board with a request that they reexamine it in the next funding go-round.

After the vote, the Board of Supervisors entertained another request for Headwaters funding. The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District had originally hoped to secure $200,000 from a different pocket of the Headwaters Fund -- the Community Investment Fund, which is aimed at infrastructure projects -- to finance a before-and-after study of the socioeconomic impacts of the Marine Life Protection Act, which will soon be implemented on the North Coast. (See related story elsewhere in this paper.)

The Headwaters Fund Board had cut the request down to $50,000, asking the district to demonstrate support for the project from other interested parties before releasing any more funds. Harbor District staff asked for the original amount -- work, they said, needed to begin right away to meet upcoming deadlines -- but the supervisors eventually voted 5-0 to approve the lower amount, with more to follow upon the district meeting the Fund's guidelines.

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