One of the best ways to create jobs in our community is to utilize existing unrealized public assets. If we already have assets that are not being used to there fullest, then that is a good place to start. These assets can provide a needed capital infusion for start-ups.
The Vista Point facility, at the north end of McKinleyville on the coastal bluff, is a good example of just such an opportunity.
The Vista Point is public property operated by Caltrans, and the undeveloped parcel just south of there is owned by the citizens of Humboldt County.
I started thinking about development opportunities in this area back in the 1980s when I started working on the Hammond Trail project.
Currently, the Vista Point is only accessible when driving on U.S. Highway 101 south. You cannot get into it when driving north, nor can you access the Hammond Trail from there without climbing a fence (which folks do all the time).
If you are driving south on Highway 101, you have been driving along the ocean for miles. If driving north, then this is the first place you see the ocean since crossing the Golden Gate some 275 miles south.
It is not unusual to see cars pulled off on the shoulder along the northbound lanes to take a picture of the magnificent Trinidad coastline. Not only is this a safety hazard, but it is also an opportunity for improved recreation, jobs and more tax revenues.
By the time the highway travelers/visitors have stopped and taken their pictures, it is too late for Humboldt. They get back in their cars and off they go to Oregon or parts north. If we could get them to pull off and stop at an expanded Vista Point, accessible from the north and south, then we have a chance to entice them to stay another night, or even plan a longer vacation in our beautiful area. Once they get out of their cars and experience the coast and realize the Hammond Trail is right there and parks are everywhere, then we have them hooked.
Increased revenues from sales tax, bed tax and other visitor expenditures will more than offset any costs of managing this facility.
Here is how a Vista Point Park could be created. The county parcel and the Caltrans parcel would be combined into a comprehensive Vista Point Park Facility.
Access to the Vista Point Park parking areas would be off the Airport Road exit for both north and southbound travelers where signs on the highway would direct them. The frontage road (Letz Avenue) west of the freeway at Airport Road would extend into the existing Vista Point parking area along the current trail route. The existing trail would be rerouted over by the coastal bluff and a bike trail would proceed down the existing trail north along the bluff face.
A hiking and horse trail would switch back down the bluff to the road at the toe of the bluff and connect with the bike trail at the toe of the bluff and head north. The trails would now be accessible from the Vista Point Park areas. The existing off-ramp would be eliminated and the facility would be fenced off from the freeway. That would prevent horses from getting out onto the highway.
This new arrangement would make this facility fully accessible from all directions and increase its attraction of visitors. The county parcel could have a combo visitors/California Welcome Center built on that parcel. The combination of new access, trails, and visitor/welcome center would fit well with the county airport and the Airport Business Park just across the freeway to the east.
Together, these improvements to existing public assets would become an economic engine for jobs and revenues for the county and its citizens. This proposal would take existing development, combine it with improvements in access and utilization of existing public assets, and generate jobs and income for decades to come.
A Visitors Center at this location makes good sense and moving the welcome center to this location, rather than its current location in a backwater area off Janes Road on a dead end road, would seem logical.
In addition to this being an opportunity knocking, there are grants to do all of this. One program run by the California Transportation Commission, the Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program, fits perfectly. They even have a category for improving vista point facilities.
There are many other grant programs that can pay for most of these improvements. These grant programs are funded by our tax dollars and I, for one, believe that the more of these tax dollars we can bring home to create jobs, the better.
Once built, these improvements will generate spin-off jobs and tax revenues through sales tax at restaurants, motels, stores and bed tax as well. All off these revenues will help the county maintain roads, police services, libraries and more.
So what has the county been planning for this undeveloped public parcel? These ideas have been shared with the Board of Supervisors and Public Works staff several times over the past 20 years.
They have not acted on this opportunity. Instead, they consider this surplus property and have at times entertained selling the parcel. A couple years ago, the Board of Supervisors met behind closed doors with a local developer to try to develop the county parcel. The outcome of the closed meeting was the signing of a Sole Source Lease Option with the developer to build a Marriott Hotel on the site.
The developer was given some time to investigate the possibility of building this high-end hotel and, if successful with permitting agencies, the hotel would be built and the county would have received lease revenues for the parcel.
The developer was asked why he was not building the hotel east of the freeway in the already-permitted Airport Business Park. He said the ocean views were better on the county parcel.
I encouraged him to consider building in the business park where such an improvement is already permitted. In fact, the owner of the business center went to great expense to plan and permit the business park and for the county to consider allowing the hotel on the west side shows a lack of respect for sound planning.
The county parcel is zoned Coastal Dependent. A Marriott is not coastal dependent, but a visitor center serving coastal visitors is.
After some investigation, the developer has pulled out, but the county still has not acted on the tremendous economic opportunity. As we connect coastal trails with parks, vista points, visitor centers and visitor services, Humboldt County’s jobs and economy will grow.
With an improved Vista Point Park, and a Marriott and other business filling the Airport Business Park, this area will become a thriving business district with jobs and abundant recreational opportunities. Take a look at the Holiday Inn at the Airport Business Park: They are smart enough to know that the coastal trail is an asset to their business and rent bicycles to guests.
Let’s build the Vista Point Park.
Stephen Sungnome Madrone is a Forestry and Watershed Management professor at Humboldt State University, is the executive director of the Mattole Salmon Group and was responsible for the completion of the Hammond Trail. He lives in the Trinidad area.