Improvished District 2 fights for its life

Hoop houses, like this one seized in a Rail Road Flat eradication last year, have been utilized by a number of marijuana farmers working under the county’s cannabis urgency ordinance.

Marijuana farmers were ready to invest heavily in greenhouses and other improvements for their operations, providing substantial revenues for local contractors, electricians, plumbers and businesses, before supervisors eliminated any certainty for the industry last month.

The boom could have brought “hundreds of millions” of dollars into the county from farmers who would have trusted the political landscape enough to invest heavily, said Jason Hauer, local business owner, lawyer and marijuana farmer.

More permanent greenhouse structures would have improved productivity and yields over the temporary “hoop houses” many have constructed since the regulatory program was initiated two years ago.

“It would have been an expensive investment to start, but would have been worthwhile over time,” said Hauer.

For some, the risks of any significant capital investments two years into the program stalled earlier upgrades. Others could not find anyone to loan the capital, given the uncertain nature of the policy landscape during the past year.

Now, after unparalleled prosperity for some because of the nascent marijuana industry, many local businesses are facing the prospect of severe losses because of the ban resolution passed by Calaveras County Supervisors Gary Tofanelli, District 1, Dennis Mills, District 4 and Clyde Clapp, District 5 on Jan. 10.

Many business owners throughout District 2 – considered ground zero of the county’s ban since it contained 80 percent of the population of growers – declined to comment on the situation. But the owner of one did: the Rail Road Flat General Store.

Improvished District 2 fights for its life

The Rail Road Flat General Store is likely to lose 40 percent of its monthly business once the ban goes into effect, said store owner Rick Davis. He does not expect farmers to come back when the normal growing season resumes in April.

Rick Davis, the owner, said he expects to lose 40 percent of his monthly business when the local marijuana famers leave because of the ban. Those farmers had become such frequent customers of his store during the previous two years that he added an “organic” section to serve them.

He estimated he’ll lose $20,000 per month during the normal growing season between April and November.

“It’s going to affect the whole county real bad,” said Davis. “They buy a lot of irrigation, potting soil. A lot of people were working who usually did not work.”

District 2 is the area where the ban will hurt most, said District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi. He described his district as a place where many live outside “downtown” locations and do not have reliable telephone reception or internet access.

Devastated by the Butte Fire more than two years ago, people were already leaving the area before the ban, said “honorary mayor” of Mountain Ranch, Phil Alberts.

“We had a famous well-to-do Realtor with a half-a-million-dollar home that did not burn. He moved, along with a dozen people like him who did not want to see black forests on all sides,” said Alberts. “We had over 40 people who used to live in the Mountain Ranch fire district that no longer live here.”

Mitigating the immediate population losses were marijuana farmers, who saw promise in the charred moonscape that was left behind after the fire. Though some were in the area before what became known as the “green rush” in 2016, outsiders saw value in the land for farming, said Garamendi.

Now, in light of the ban, people are likely to leave the area to pursue opportunities elsewhere, further reducing an already sparse population, Garamendi said.

With it comes the increased likelihood that some schools in the area may close completely, such as Rail Road Flat Elementary, which has battled shutdown attempts because of declining enrollment.

District 2 is particularly vulnerable because it is literally farther away from resources than all other Calaveras towns, Garamendi said. It is much harder to travel west to a city for work in the eastern parts of the county than it would be in areas like Valley Springs or Copperopolis, among others.

“Other citizens are able to commute to economic centers like Lodi and Stockton for work,” said Garamendi. “It’s a long way from Wilseyville to Stockton for a job.”

Barring reconsideration of the ban by the Board of Supervisors, Garamendi said they would need to build an industry locally. He suggested something in the field of forestry, citing a proposed bioplant in Wilseyville set to begin operation sometime within the next two years.

Rebuilding a new economic engine would be slow going, however. Garamendi said the bioplant could provide up to 20 jobs in the interim (compared to the 2,605 jobs the cannabis industry provided countywide, according to a 2016 University of Pacific business study). The potential for future growth would be connected to how many businesses build around it.

The district needs an economic base to provide jobs, said Garamendi. Without it, poverty in the county’s most impoverished area, along with associated social problems like crime and delinquency, could increase rapidly.

Garamendi also emphasized the need for improved infrastructure. People in his district need phone and internet services to thrive as entrepreneurs, but that will take substantial work and investment from rural development agencies.

“When we rebuild roads (destroyed by the Butte Fire), we need to make sure we lay high-speed cables underneath,” Garamendi said. “It would provide the backbone for people to plug in and be connected to the world.”

Despite the economic implications of the ban, not all residents of District 2 are dissatisfied with the decision.

Alberts speculates that Mountain Ranch will eventually look like it did five or 10 years ago, an area with minimal traffic that did not require much development effort or road maintenance.

“Stores aren’t any bigger now than they were years ago,” Alberts said. “Having the ban might be a good thing.”

Updated midnight Friday for spelling.

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