Friday afternoon at the tail end of the first sleepy week of the new year, just as the last members of the holiday skeleton crew at Town Hall were packing it in, suddenly laptops and mobile devices lit up across town with notification that the City of Fort Bragg Administration was once more pushing the agenda of the Georgia Pacific Corporation. The Koch Brothers and their wholly owned subsidiary, Fort Bragg City Hall, are dropping the axe on the 75,000 square dry-shed #4 at the next Planning Commission meeting, Wednesday night at 6:00.
Ms Marie Jones, the City’s Development Director, has not just adopted but improved, if not the methodologies themselves, at least the techniques of outgoing City Manager Linda Ruffing who is leaving in disgrace. Ms. Jones is smugly confident that the Ruffing system is intact and she really enjoys proving it. Smart timing and minimum dialogue keep the ball rolling. She has blithely missed the significance of the lynching the city is undergoing.
The next crucial step in the Koch Brothers’ agenda to bequeath to the city a permanent toxic dump is to tear down the last remaining structures on the mill site. Public access of any kind to the mill site would certainly amplify demands to continue the cleanup. A vacant lot is so much more compatible with the carcinogens and dioxins than anything involving humans. People walking around in the dead zone could be intensely unhelpful. The savvy executives in Atlanta with their extensive experience must understand (no doubt do understand) that the mill’s still sturdy dry sheds would be important to any city on earth and almost certainly be at the heart of community negotiations. There is no evidence of that happening here, but they would still like to stay ahead of the disaster.
Wednesday night at 6:00 night all of it is in the crosshairs. There will be enormous behind the scenes pressure for the Planning Commission to go with the flow and give up the ghost to so far triumphant GP. An irrevocable decision to demolish the 75,000 square foot dryshed #4 would put one more nail in the almost completed coffin of public interest, remove a prodigious incentive for the megacorp to negotiate fairly in the mill pond cleanup and degrade the city’s negotiating position irredeemably.
G-P will probably pull it off. The people of the city and the press were given the minimum possible time to encompass their astonishment and make a protest if there was to be one. Our now top city administrator is confident that expeditious timing, aka a bum’s rush, would keep this most recent railroading well ahead of public dialogue. An angry electorate faced with an accomplished fact, is something they have learned to handle. They can’t be touched. They think unpopularity is a status symbol.
The relationship between the Koch Brothers and Marie Jones has deep roots. In 2009 Ms. Jones hammered out a specific plan for extensive development of the massive property in a surreal exercise that planned a development down to the width of the sidewalks and the color of the paint when there was no developer remotely in sight.
A Specific Plan binds a developer to acceptable city planning. It provides the substance of a specific negotiation. That’s why they call it specific. A Specific Plan without a developer is a tailored a suit of clothes for anybody at all. The enormous effort that Marie Jones and then City Councilman Dan Gjerde put into the famous Specific Plan could only have been based on a complete and total misunderstanding of the purpose and very nature of what a Specific Plan intrinsically is. They had no developer. For whom were they planning? Unless, of course it was deliberate irresponsible grandstanding.
Georgia Pacific comprehended the irrationality of Ms Jones’s crusade for imaginary development before the people of the city ever did. In those days there was no press, only the cheerleading Fort Bragg Advocate making kindly noises of support for whatever they were spoon-fed. At length and after long-suffering, GP reached terminal annoyance and pulled the money plug on the inane development director. That left the city in hock for $2.5 million in planning costs. After an interval of acute embarrassment and pointed uncertainty GP finally did pick up the bill. Sticking the city with it would have been easy and it would have saved them $2.5 million. The Koch Brothers were nice about it in the way a predator about to eat you is kindly and sensitive. The next thing we heard from them was the proposal for the Local Coastal Plan to replace the Specific Plan.
GP fully paid for an inherently crazy Specific Plan, conducted over a course of years, involving negotiations with many entities. The Coastal Commission, the City’s Planning Commission and the City Councils of the day all saw Marie Jones as unicorn. Nobody questioned her magical thinking. This is Mendocino. On the other hand no entrepreneur in the shark filled avaricious world of real estate development contemplated for one nanosecond buying into a weirdly generic architectural nightmare that included, for example, Dan Gjerde’s personal preference for awning width. After the storm blew over, Ms. Jones mused in her scholarly way for a decade or so upon the law of specific plans and at length like St. Jerome after deep soul searching had an epiphany — in her case that a Specific Plan without a developer might not be the way to go. Two decades of water and cash had flowed under the Development Department bridge when she made the discovery. Spokesperson in charge of damage control, Linda Ruffing, bluffed the City Council in her inimitable way and explained merrily without embarrassment that upon careful review astute city planners had noticed that they had selected the wrong model of planning from the outset. Ruffing explained to the predictably blear-eyed and uninvolved amateur board of rubberstampers (the City Council) that she had discovered that the cart had actually been placed before the horse. Heck. Darn.
This disclosure was packaged as innovation and the regular troupes of City Hall supporters including the ever loyal and congenitally uncritical George Reinhardt saluted and did a smart about-face and transferred their uncritical support of the Specific Plan to uncritical support of the Local Coastal Plan amendment. Now our planning experts are assuring us their ducks are in a row at last (after 20 years). That this new leaf has been turned over just as GP has announced their intention to stop further cleanup of the mill-site is a coincidence they prefer that you not notice.
Blundering Development Department ineptitude did not cost anybody anything except for the $2.5 million GP had to shell out and the 20 years of lost time the people of Fort Bragg chipped in. Those years are a vast vista of unexplored options, and mild fruitless negotiations. GP waited in disdainful patience for the bottom to drop out. Now it has. The $800 billion owners of the still radically polluted site are after one thing. It is exactly the thing that the City Council fears: no further liability, and no more cleanup. Now. With the liability issue set aside, the property becomes salable, piece by piece.
Cities across America are either successes or failures. Sometimes it’s luck, more often it is deliberate innovation. In this case, the giant buildings on the fenced off mill site seem to scream for innovation and application. They want to be our success. They could be.
A successful City Council possesses the vision to recognize any possible civic asset, a keen discernment of opportunity and will certainly go after every option that might remotely lead to community prosperity. Opportunism is the trademark of all successful municipal governments.
Can I get a duh?
Examples can be found all over America. We have but to look. Cities that fail to elect opportunistic and innovative governments are civic failures. Their city councils should wear dunce caps. Ours should. Cities without leadership are the empty holes of diminishing prosperity and municipal financial insolvency. There are also a lot of them. We don't have to look too far for an example of that, but it is striking how clear the choice before us is. Wendsday night is a big deal.
The city of Fort Bragg does not have to start from scratch. Whatever it is the mill site might be, it is most of all a vast potentiality. People have been advocating arguing and screaming for vision, for twenty years. No matter how long or how loudly we shout it at them, the city planners are stone deaf.
If there is any vision, any concept, idea or innovation for the improvement of city prosperity which is superior to the opportunity in the dry sheds I would be grateful if someone would tell me what it is. Any municipality has the potential to attract people if they open their doors. Cities can earn millions if they will themselves to do it a little. An asset like the mill site is immensely valuable, an asset like the dry-sheds is very obvious.
A thriving prosperity is not just knocking but banging at our doors. The celebration and the trading fair, from time immemorial have been keys to municipal prosperity. Cities are places. Places are always potentially an event. Any evening is fireworks. It just takes class. All successful cities work ceaselessly to think up activities that will bring people into their economies. They promote themselves with fairs and trading expositions, concerts, pony shows, they exhibit art, I don't know… But the market knows. Cities don't do it. (Can you imagine Marie Jones organizing anything?) Open the resource and the visionaries will come. We can forget our childish enterprise of branding and harness racing market demand driven by social media and amplified by event management virtual marketing. A powerful focusing asset like the dry-sheds is the core of a huge civic opportunity if it is linked with the deliberate cooperation of the City Council.
I have no worries that the day to day prosperity of the people will be actually undermined by the arbitrary and feckless absence of leadership we get for $300 a month per councilman . For a city that has horrible statistics for income, people seem to have figured out how to live and thrive. I don't know, maybe in some cases enterprise runs under the table. It seems to work. The schools are safe and the gardens are green.
But I think we all share a lurking sense that the prosperity that we are missing year by year is the real cost. It is a mighty cost, too high to be easily counted. But I say we do something. Let them keep the federal gravy that our disadvantaged status earns us. In defiance of Ruffing’s deep rooted career-long cowardice I say we are better than that.
Leadership in the tiny burg of Fort Bragg has been diligent and reasonably brave, but it is necessarily amateur and part time. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that neither the City Council and certainly not the Planning Commission have shown the slightest inclination to actually lead. They have put forward no ideas of their own and limited their contribution to the expression of a vague hope that something good will get done if they give direction to the city planners to think up something.
What is needed is creativity. Meanwhile the city administration holds it on principle that there is nothing created except that a consultant be in charge of it. Creativity as such is exquisitely unlikely. Not that they ever considered doing anything other than dither, but even if they had, the driving force, the sole dynamo, the dictator in chief and official megalomanic Ms Ruffing has been canned and even purchased creativity by consultant has gone with her. The spookiness and echoing vacuity of Town Hall these days is totally dead except for the little candle of a Development Director lost alone on her little island of perpetual delay. Innovation is completely off the table.
Will they save the drysheds?
Monday night at the City Council meeting enter stage right the people of the city.