Saturday, September 8, 2007

Jackson does need help, but not Jackson Hills

It looks like Jackson's City Council will complete the approval of the Jackson Hills project on Monday night, September 10. Some locals think the city council members have been "bought off" by the developers.

I don't. I think it's more likely that the council members feel like they have to do something to address the challenges facing Jackson today: a distressed downtown, the loss of sales tax-generating businesses to the county, and the need to develop wastewater disposal alternatives.

The council is approving Jackson Hills because it's been sold to them as the solution to these problems. And they've bought the package, despite the many questions that surround it.

It's an easy fix, right? Approve one subdivision and all of Jackson's problems will go away. Problem is, closer scrutiny shows that Jackson Hills is not the solution, and before long, the city will have the same problems it had before, compounded by the problems that come with Jackson Hills, including gridlock in the south part of town.

There are other options.

Let's take downtown first. Years ago, when the county government was based in Jackson, county workers went downtown to shop at lunch and after work (I worked briefly in the courthouse, so saw and did this myself). When the government center moved out to Argonaut Heights, the downtown merchants lost that business. Now that the county workers are back on Court Street, has anyone tried to lure them back downtown?

Let's see -- why would county workers -- or Sutter Amador Hospital employees -- shop in Jackson? Maybe if there were free shuttles at lunch time. Maybe if it were easy to grab a loaner bike at the workplace and pedal into town for a sandwich without risking your life in the process. Maybe if there were actually something to buy. Remember, Jackson used to have many businesses that catered primarily to local residents and people working nearby.

Perhaps local business owners need to look at the local market again. The city could help by funding some market research and making it available for free to local businesses, working with the two big employers in town, and going back to some of the good plans developed for downtown in the past that are now gathering dust on someone's shelf. A little economic gardening could go a long way.

Also, I've always thought that any big shopping center with a shady parking lot could do a lot more business in summer than those with acres upon acres of unshaded asphalt. Given the choice of shopping at a store with cool parking or one without, I know which one I'd pick on a hot summer day. Urban forest grants could green up Jackson's shopping center lots for those who aren't going to go downtown and make them more competitive with the businesses in Mart-hell.

The sales tax loss is a hard problem to solve. Jackson always had unusually high sales tax revenue, thanks to its car dealerships. One could see how big a problem that loss was going to be years ago when the county decided to create the Mario Biagi Sales Tax Sacrifice Zone in Martell.

Home Depot is trying to sell itself as the solution to this problem, while proposing to build in the historic viewshed below the Kennedy Mine. Surely there are other ways to help Jackson renew its business base.

Wastewater disposal is the third big challenge. Spraying treated wastewater on local ranch lands is one good solution. And unlike a golf course, irrigated cattle pastures don't come with 580 houses and nearly 6,000 car trips a day.

As Jackson works on long-term wastewater solutions, the city could immediately reduce its wastewater volume by conducting water audits for every household to identify water-wasting practices. It could also subsidize the purchase of low-flush toilets and modern, water-saving clothes washers.

A new washing machine of the right type uses only 35%-50% as much water as older models -- that's water going into the wastewater system today. Everyone wins -- the homeowner spends less on water and power and the city has less wastewater to treat. The city would save money, too. Muncipal wastewater treatment requires a great deal of electricity.

Just as there is no free lunch, there is no simple solution for Jackson's problems. But there are alternatives to a big, environmentally destructive, dumb-growth subdivision that threatens the operation of local ranches. I've name just a few here. I'm sure others could be developed with some concerted effort and creativity.

Real leadership for Jackson means moving ahead with that effort. And it means standing up and taking on these challenges with a view to long-term consequences, not opting for the easy short-term fix -- especially one as suspect as Jackson Hills.

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