A local specialty is to let our finest, prettiest, most historic buildings be purchased by strangers and then allowed to sit and rot. Encouraged to sit and rot, even.
Almost 40 years have passed since our downtown jewel, the Palace Hotel, closed its doors, seemingly temporarily, only to be purchased by a confused woman of modest means from Marin County. Many forget that until the day doors were locked for the last time it was a high quality hotel with an excellent restaurant and two beautiful bars.
But shut down it did, and though we all thought it would soon reopen, it never will.
The downtown Post Office, a block west of the Palace, was sold to out-of-towners six or eight years ago. The U.S.Postal Service abandoned the classic building so it could relocate to a cheap storage unit near the freeway. It was a stupid move that cost taxpayers many millions of dollars, and cost Ukiah one of its last architectural gems.
The new owners of the old Post Office turned out the lights, locked the doors, put a chain link fence around it and disappeared. Six or eight years ago, mind you.
The bowling alley and skating rink, although (barely) outside the city limits, await gloomy fates none of us will want to watch when the day comes. On South School Street, right downtown and straight across from the Ukiah Conference Center, the video arcade just went dark.
Long before the Palace died, the old Mendocino State Hospital shut down. The beautiful Talmage grounds were offered as home for the brand new Mendocino College at a price of . . . One dollar ($1).
But instead of acquiring what would immediately have been the loveliest college campus in the state, county officials declined.
The school chose instead to operate for many years hunkered down in used trailers at the fairgrounds, then moved to a collection of dreary, cookie-cutter buildings north of town.
Today the JC boasts as cheap and stark a campus as the shabby, pre-fab County headquarters on Low Gap Road, but with a bigger parking lot.
Meanwhile, back at the old hospital, foreign investors bought the grounds and it functions as a school, running some classes in a few buildings.
What takes place throughout the rest of it is unknown. If you asked a thousand Ukiah residents to explain what goes on at the old hospital you wouldn’t learn a thing. We know nothing.
Such as: How many people live there? What do they do? How do they pay the mortgage? Where do they buy their groceries? Who tells them what to do?
More recently the old Trinity School on Ukiah’s west side was purchased by who-knows-whom. The multi-building complex has been a-moldering ever since.
Oh sure, improvements have been made. A few more broken windows have been added to the building at the western edge of the campus for example, and a few years ago some trees got chopped down, one of which collapsed atop the baseball backstop and crushed it.
The ball diamond itself has been converted to a thriving vacant lot.
No one has any more idea what goes on at the old Trinity School than they do the old hospital. The pair occupy hundreds of thousands of square feet in highly desirable sections of Mendocino County and I’d bet no one at either city hall or in county government could even guess what happens in all those rooms down all those hallways.
Allowing buildings to fall apart and become useless and / or dangerous indicates lack of local leadership. It turns a fine, livable city into a trashy, irretrievable mess.
Drive around. Look at boarded up shops, decaying motels, an utter lack of vitality in once-prosperous parts of town and ask yourself who is in charge? Why doesn’t anyone at city hall care, or even notice?
It’s poised to get worse. Ukiah is staring at an incoming wave of failing businesses and empty buildings. Curry’s Furniture recently closed after more than 100 years. What will happen to its massive downtown property?
Will JC Penney’s reopen? Kohl’s? Will the Ukiah movie theater stay afloat? What does a town without a bowling alley, skating rink, movie theater or downtown arcade have to offer kids and families?
Maybe city officials yawn and roll their eyes when sheets of plywood appear in State Street windows. Maybe they shrug at what they think are other peoples’ problems. But when businesses go under and citizens lose their jobs, perhaps the only tragedy city bosses actually care about inevitably follows: Tax revenues decline.
We chase after grant money so we can extend the Rail Trail three more miles, and we fast-track cannabis operations as if a dozen more pot dispensaries might improve our economy, the town’s appearance and the average citizen’s quality of life.
(Hint: They won’t.)
(Tom Hine lives in Ukiah along with his writing partner and pet inflatable doll, Tommy Wayne Kramer. The ‘Assignment: Ukiah’ column has appeared weekly since 2006.)