This week's North Coast Journal cover story is an interview with two banker/entreprenurial Humboldt residents talking about the county's economy. I have two quick reactions on subjects they brought up, primarily of local interest but also with wider application: the relationship of government and business, and the public relations dilemma of our local university, in a time it has begun the mainstay of the local economy and should be even more of a focus in the future. But it's currently struggling to stay alive.
The Business of Government
One of the themes that emerges from this interview is what one banker calls the "natural tension" between business and government. One says that Humboldt has become dependent on government funds from outside for infrastructure and services, but those funds are declining. He also suggests that the wave of local entreprenuership of twenty years ago hasn't been repeated in recent years.
But he fails to put the two together. I'd be interested to see a graph of the two phenomena: the years in which California and the federal government devoted more tax money to infrastructure--roads, parks, water systems, etc. as well as the infrastructure of support for public education at all levels, special programs for the arts and sciences, support for the state university, etc.---and for social services, including medical care, various support systems for senior citizens, for healthy children and families, for the differently abled. And the years in which there was a high level of entreprenuership locally. (I don't mean a literal graph---I hate graphs. But a comparison.)
I'll bet they match up pretty closely. What apparently business forgets (and may like the rest of us to forget) is how much they benefit from government support, both generally (as in the above examples) and in special favors, everything from abatements to roads built for their private use.
I'm not about to defend government bureaucracy (or the corporate version) that stifles creativity and tamps down energies. There is something of a natural tension between the processes of business and government, but that's often healthy. They operate as checks and balances. But it's time for everyone to recognize how much business benefits from government in creating general and specific conditions that allow businesses to begin and thrive.
It's going to be especially true in Humboldt's future. Two major components of the local economy that aren't mentioned are tourism and retirement or senior citizen related services, including medical and various care facilities. (Humboldt is precisely the kind of place that attracts retirees.) Both require government support, sometimes in direct subsidies (senior care) or indirectly in maintaining parks and public lands, and building new infrastructure.
Neither of these are high profit margin businesses, and though some can be fairly large, most will be small and very entrepreneurial. (I hope one of the eight ways I've spelled that turns out to be right.)
For both, smart government spending is essential, and it's time for business to recognize this--oppose these self-destructive tax cuts for the wealthy, on every level---and make life better for everyone, which makes this place more attractive to employers and good employees, as well as specifically creating better opportunities for business.
Redwood State University?
The bankers acknowledge that Humboldt State University is now the largest single economic force in the county, and is likely to be the most important factor in its economic future.But Humboldt is suffering the effects of state funding cutbacks, while it is also experiencing a decline in students, while much of the rest of the state university system has higher enrollments. The bankers discuss this in the context of our substantial "underground economy" (which means marihuana) and the apparent fact that this is the county's identity worldwide--that is, Humboldt =Humboldt's Finest.
Humboldt State especially perceives this as a problem, their biggest problem in fact. In some ways it seems to have become an obsession. One of the bankers, Patrick Cleary, suggests that HSU change its name to something like Redwood University, and advertise it as being in Arcata, not HC. The other, Thomas Bruner, thought this was a good idea, because HSU was never going to be able to market against this image directly: "Because what are you going to do, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a marketing campaign? Humboldt: It's Not Just Dope.
The idea of a name change, of "re-branding" in today's vocab, isn't a bad one. There's recent precedent for a name change in the state university system---so the number-crunchers will have something to study to budget it. It could kick off a positive marketing campaign that might have the virtue of being true, for HSU does have an identity, even if it's been unable so far to express it well enough. And it does have to do with this place, with the environment and environmental concerns.
It's also possible to creatively take on the stereotype, with something between "It's not just dope" and the backdoor effort HSU halfheartedly pursued to market this place as "healthy."
But is it necessary? I'm not persuaded of that. It is a kind of truism that seems to be true by virtue of being repeated, and there's nothing more powerful in corporate America-- or corporate academia--- than the latest conventional wisdom. But there's no advantage in simply being so defensive--people can smell that a mile away (not just about dope but the homeless on the Plaza, etc. )
There's also no doubt in any case that HSU needs focused and more creative and energetic marketing, (as well as fewer public relations catastrophes) and a more flexible attitude--- and the clock is ticking.
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