On Tuesday the Humboldt County Board of Supervisor voted unanimously to have staff negotiate with Caltrans over the purchase of property at the Humboldt-Mendocino County line that could one day host a tourist welcome center.
Before giving his approval, however, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone voiced displeasure at the timing and suggested this SoHum welcome center was jumping the line, cutting in front of a proposal he’s been working on for years.
As we reported earlier this week, a group of hoteliers in southern Humboldt County has been pursuing the concept of a welcome center, a place where travelers can pull off the road, maybe grab a cup of coffee and get information on things to see and do while visiting the region.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell said her predecessor, Estelle Fennell, discussed the concept with interested parties during her term in office, and Public Works Director Tom Mattson said the county’s Economic Development Division has been in more recent talks with interested parties.
Caltrans owns some land along Hwy. 101 at the county line and the agency has expressed willingness to designate the property as “surplus” and sell it or possibly trade it for a nearby county-owned piece of land.
“We have had some interest expressed from the private sector to fund and operate the center, and so we’ve met with Caltrans,” Mattson said. “We haven’t spent any real money yet, so this is where the wheel starts to hit the road, because with the board’s blessing we would ask Caltrans to officially begin the surplussing process for that property in order to turn it over to another government entity or [the] private sector.”
If the county succeeds in acquiring the property, it could then issue a request for proposals to find a government agency, business or nonprofit to build and operate the welcome center.
Over the course of the board’s discussion, all five supervisors expressed support for the concept, to varying degrees, but Madrone took umbrage with the sudden appearance of the proposal.
“I called Michelle yesterday to talk with her because, you know, I’ve been a [longtime] supporter of doing visitors centers, welcome centers, and she was unaware that I’ve been working on a project for 25 years called Vista Point Park,” he said.
Madrone explained that a quarter century ago, while working with the county to develop Hammond Trail, he identified a “dysfunctional” vista point — the pull-off spot above Clam Beach that’s accessible only from Hwy. 101 south. As soon as he took office, almost four years ago, Madrone started talking with county officials about his vision: a visitors center employing county-owned property at the southern edge of the vista point.
“This is a really important component to McKinleyville’s economic development,” he said. “It’s struggling as a community with a lot of empty stores. … And so I have been bringing forth this concept of combining the county parcel with the Caltrans parcel [immediately north] to create what I like to call Vista Point Park, where everybody could get into it from the north or south [via Airport Road].”
Progress on Madrone’s vision has been stymied by red tape involving the Federal Aviation Administration, but he said he’s been steadfastly pressuring county officials to make progress. Combined with other efforts, including the McKinleyville Town Center project and continued development of the Airport Business Park, Vista Point Park “would, in fact, change the economics of Mckinleyville dramatically,” Madrone said.
“So, again, I’ve been working on this for 25 years, brought it to the county four years ago, been patiently waiting for us to get this project started, and then all of a sudden, here comes this one?” he said.
Madrone objected to prospect of spending county money on a feasibility analysis and possible property purchase rather than moving forward on his preferred spot, which the county already owns. He also noted that in the age of smartphones, most people no longer rely on welcome centers to get their bearings.
“So there is a saturation point for these things,” he said. “You can’t build them everywhere.”
Madrone suggested waiting to move forward on the SoHum welcome center until staff can explain why the McKinleyville one has been delayed and offer a big picture analysis of the situation.
Following his comments, Economic Development Director Scott Adair appeared via Zoom to address the matter. He confirmed that Madrone first approached him and Director of Aviation Cody Roggatz years ago and said staff has undertaken some “limited work” on the concept since then but hit roadblocks with federal agencies including the FAA.
“I’m happy to reach out to Cody and have an earnest discussion about how we can revitalize the Vista Point Project and work with Supervisor Madrone to see what we need to do to move it forward and make it a priority,” Adair said. He also noted that the item under discussion would simply allow staff to have conversations with Caltrans, and the actual welcome center project would require a competitive bidding process and further board approval.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said the SoHum project has the advantage of “motivated citizens” working to bring it to fruition, referring to the SoHum hoteliers pushing for the welcome center.
Bushnell said she thinks there’s room for both projects to proceed.
“I didn’t know that you had one … but I don’t think this one should suffer because of that,” she said. Madrone agreed but again suggested a one-month delay to give staff time to write a report on “the larger picture of Humboldt County visitors centers,” including funding opportunities.
Bushnell pointed out that Caltrans has been waiting three months for an answer from the county.
“Well, they’re not gonna walk away in a month,” Madrone said.
Adair said it’s possible that, through talks with Caltrans, the county could wind up acquiring the SoHum property at no cost. “However, Caltrans has expressed that timing is critical for them,” he said.
Wilson chimed in again to say he’s not really a proponent of welcome centers. “It’s not my jam,” he said, but he still argued that it’s in the county’s interest to pursue the SoHum property due to its strategic location. And he said Madrone’s dream project could potentially “draft” behind the momentum of this one.
Wilson made a motion to approve the item under discussion, and First District Supervisor Rex Bohn seconded it.
Madrone acknowledged that there was nothing to be done at this particular meeting to advance his project since it wasn’t on the agenda, and he wound up joining his colleagues in the 5-0 vote to approve staff’s recommendations, clearing the way for Public Works personnel to negotiate with Caltrans.