Signs of rural decline in Lassen County — dealing with the source

The “broken windows theory” is a criminological theory that associates signs of community decline with increased vandalism, crime, homelessness, drug dealing and anti-social behavior. Broken windows are used as a metaphor for decay and disorder in run-down neighborhoods. Susanville and Lassen County have plenty of “broken window” properties.

Many abandoned buildings have been in disrepair for decades. They may have water damage, mold, asbestos, lead paint, public health and serious structural issues. Property owners don’t maintain them for a variety of reasons. So, there they sit –– community eyesores that give the impression Susanville has fallen on hard times.

Elected officials are also not enforcing codes or adopting needed codes to address the number of run-down properties. This divestment in our city’s core is readily apparent with vacant storefronts along Main Street and on side streets like Alexander or Weatherlow –– areas that used to be thriving hubs of commerce for small merchants decades ago. Today, there is far more vacant commercial space in Uptown than there is demand for that space.

These empty storefronts have become targets for vandalism and occupancy by transients. Several have burned under suspicious circumstances.

The Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail is a nationally renowned rail-trail. It was inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The “Bizz” also hosts a major fall festival, marathon and fall color rides. Trail-related tourism on the “Bizz” (and other county trails) generates economic activity in our region. Most residents and visitors access the “Bizz” at the Historic Susanville Railroad Depot by turning at the Main Street/South Weatherlow intersection. To reach the Depot, they pass by a long row dilapidated commercial buildings and vacant, shuttered homes in full view. Most of these buildings have been vacant for over a decade and some for more than 30 years. What kind of welcome are we offering our visitors?

The high school and a charter school are located at the intersection of Main and South Weatherlow. Do students feel safe walking past this block of run-down buildings? Do we want this kind neighborhood right next to two schools?

Some occupied buildings in Uptown also contribute to Susanville’s blight. Their dull facades and outdated windows, doors and signs convey a message the tenant or owner doesn’t really care how they present their business to potential customers. When you step inside, some store interiors are as bad as their exteriors. Uptown also has a mix of architectural styles from attractive stone buildings to 1950s-era facades that were a mistake to construct from day one.

Lassen County offers an array of scenic, natural, cultural and recreational amenities –– all factors that provide a high quality of life if blight was not such a pervasive portrait of community decline. The investment in a shopping complex south of Susanville along with the explosion of online shopping have dealt a deadly blow to local businesses. Revitalizing a struggling commercial district will be challenging, especially when broader national and regional trends do not support local retail growth.

Following are some ideas to transform Susanville’s Uptown district into a community centerpiece and a source of community pride. They apply to any community facing rural decline.

Vacant storefronts and run-down buildings adversely affect current businesses and residents. People don’t feel safe in their neighborhood and their properties are devalued when blight spreads. These conditions make it harder to attract new businesses and residents. Voters should not accept this.

Our communities are better off channeling their resources into removing blight versus trying to police misdemeanor or petty crimes and raising taxes to pay for that enforcement. This doesn’t deal with the source of the problem.

Enforce or adopt codes to deal with neglected properties, unregistered vehicles and other code violations. Elected officials shouldn’t shy away from being labeled as the “bad guys” by irate property owners. You’re not, the owners are.

Adopt a Susanville Main Street program to revitalize the city core. This includes a streetscape plan that preserves the architectural details and enduring value and beauty of the city’s historic buildings. The revitalization of South Lake Tahoe is one example of integrated architectural design that celebrates that city’s “sense of place” with the natural environment.

Adopt beautification standards and design guidelines for towns similar to the Texas “Scenic City Program”.

Preserve Susanville’s historic assets. Maintain and repurpose the historic stone buildings that once dominated Main Street in the early 1900’s. Demolish those where the investment is too high for the return. Consider mixed use zoning for infill that allows residential and commercial development. Provide easy walking/ cycling access to businesses, green space, and nearby recreational facilities.

Conserve and showcase the county’s natural amenities –– Paiute Creek, the Susan River, Susanville Ranch Park and other greenways and trails. Most counties in the Sierra Nevada are taking insufficient steps to safeguard their most important economic asset –– the beauty and rural character of the natural environment. Continued inattention to this problem is likely to do permanent harm to our economy by reducing the Lassen County’s appeal as a place to live and recreate.

Create an attractive, city center (the “village green” concept). Purchase property to connect Memorial Park to Main Street. Make the “village green” a welcoming gathering space for community events and celebrations that draw people to uptown.

Remove the blocks of long-vacant buildings on both sides of South Weatherlow and along Alexander Avenue to South Railroad Avenue to provide a positive first impression to visitors to the Bizz.

Relocate high school class rooms along Paiute Creek to the South Weatherlow side of the campus after vacant buildings are demolished. Create a green space all along Paiute Creek as properties become available.

Create a pocket park/day use area at the Susan River swimming hole by the bridge on South Weatherlow. Remove blighted buildings at this location for the park.

Purchase 80 acres of former mill site property along the Susan River for green space, recreation, and light retail and residential development that protects the river corridor.

Purchase and develop the Wendel Line Trail to provide alternative transportation to the two correctional centers and to provide a critical link to the Modoc Line and the “Bizz.”

Demolish long-vacant properties along Hospital Lane and Richmond Road to create an inviting green space around the community swimming pool. Infill this vacant space with residences if desired later on.

Take back our streets (like Riverside Drive) to create pedestrian and bike friendly commercial districts and neighborhoods. People would walk or bike to Uptown if there were decent sidewalks, shade trees, benches, bike racks and dedicated bike lanes. Many people don’t realize how sweltering it is to walk along Main Street this time of year when there are no shade trees. And constructing sidewalks with a succession of encroaching driveway aprons is a poor substitute for a safe, level path that’s ADA compliant.

Invest public resources to expand and maintain services that directly benefit city and county residents such as the library, pool, parks, and trails. These are major public amenities that need to be maintained the same as a road, bridge or public building. It is unreasonable to assume user fees, grants, charitable donations or volunteers can bear the full cost of developing and maintaining these public facilities.

Research options to fund public infrastructure such as a Tourism or Business Improvement District tax, a 1 percent tax on all real estate purchases, a development fee to fund public facilities and services, or Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for major community or private improvement projects, etc.

Research options such as federal/state community development grants to assist owners and local agencies to fix up or demolish run-down properties.

Set up a revolving loan fund to help existing businesses and startups.

Lassen County offers stunning scenery, clean air and water quality, vast expanses of public land for outdoor recreation and a low cost of living ideal for raising families. The county also faces challenges due to its remote location, a shrinking population, mixed views on the quality of education provided, limited services and the out-migration of younger families and workers. It is listed as one of 14 “vulnerable counties” in California based on demographic and economic indicators that are not consistent with a vibrant, healthy economy (population, employment, taxable sales, income, home building and home prices). This, in turn, has led to sluggish increases in personal income, consumer spending and real estate development. Consequently, county and city budgets are strained to provide important services to residents. For most of the 14 vulnerable counties on the state’s list, the population aged 65 and older is larger than the 25- to 44-year-old age group. This will continue into the foreseeable future (Caltrans, California County-Level Economic Forecast 2018-2050).

Lassen County’s population has declined approximately 10 percent since 2000 primarily due to the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, and wholesale and retail trade since 2011 (Lassen County 2019-2024 Housing Element, March 2019 draft). In 2017, it lost 250 jobs.

The county’s population is projected to decrease another 10 percent between 2018 to 2050 (CA Department of Finance). Population decline puts the county at risk of economic stagnation with slow job growth, income growth that will not keep pace with the statewide average, and minimal housing development. The population is also aging rapidly and will have more deaths than births beyond 2023. (County Economic Forecast, CA Department of Transportation, 2018).

Thriving, small communities do not happen by accident. They are intentional. Many rural communities are focused on reversing these trends. I hope I’ve initiated a dialog with equally concerned citizens who are worried about the signs of economic decline and blight in our community. I hope it inspires elected officials to implement visionary strategies that will help our towns to prosper.