City Needs Comprehensive Development Plan Centered Around the “Real Gold in Grass Valley”

By Bruce Herring

Much ado lately in local press and other spheres concerning the future of Grass Valley. Citizens, elected officials, print journalists, bloggers, and other characters have bandied about a variety of notions. At issue: What is, what has, and what will really revitalize Grass Valley? It has been suggested the new Dorsey interchange is the true “silver bullet.” It has been suggested a new “Lifestyle Mall” at the interchange is the key to our future, complete with a big or at least a medium box. “It’s what the people want.”

Not long ago the buzz was the re-opening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine. Before that it was Loma Rica, other annexations, the shopping malls, and heck even the freeway itself. Brilliant idea that freeway, and convenient. Of course great swaths of private and commercial property were condemned, Nevada City lost the old gazebo, and Wolf Creek sentenced to run underground through tunnels and culverts for much of its downtown reach. A bit further back are the mines themselves, the mills, Lake Olympia, the Narrow Gauge Railroad, and …

Except for a portion of the original Loma Rica plan, these ideas and “improvements” – while visionary to varying degrees – are all based on quite conventional nineteenth or twentieth century thought. All have brought, or will bring some gain. All have tradeoffs. Everything does.

Several recent comments aim to push the conversation toward a 21st century framework. One suggests we are leaving history out of the equation. Others call for a comprehensive outlook instead of the usual piece-meal strategy. Steve Frisch of the Sierra Business Council goes one step further to suggest folks today “Want to live, work, shop and be entertained in the place they live; they want to walk and ride bikes; they want access to trails and open space; they want affordable starter housing for working people because young people can’t afford the single family residential American dream anymore; people crave authenticity and a sense of place.”

Two things. One, the City of Grass Valley has secured a grant to pursue a Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. I am told by high level city staffers that a multi-year series of public meetings will commence sometime later this year to do just that. Fabulous.

Two. Yes, a comprehensive outlook with a broad perspective is indeed a welcome idea. But the discourse must also include the age-old concept of the Commons. To be sure Grass Valley and Western Nevada County need to continue moving forward economically. But as Mr. Frisch suggests, we should do so authentically and with a renewed sense of “place.”

The common thread through Grass Valley is Wolf Creek. Like most “commons” it has been virtually invisible, neglected, used, and abused since the get-go in the 1850s. Commons in general are taken for granted and not valued in the complex accounting of GDP and “economic growth.” And yet in their wisdom the Grass Valley City Council unanimously approved a Conceptual Plan for a Wolf Creek Parkway in 2006. A Wolf Creek Trail is mentioned in city documents as early as 1999 and is included in the Downtown Strategic Plan.

Little or nothing has happened in the last eight years to move the concept forward. The time to do so is now. The Wolf Creek Parkway can and should stand as the centerpiece of any Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. Yes for the creek’s sake, but more importantly for OURS. We need a healthy visible accessible creek to revitalize ourselves. A place to walk, a place to bike, a place to just sit by moving water will provide a profound sense of place and connection to the natural world. It will help each of us feel good about our town. Citizens and visitors alike will benefit from the shared values derived from Wolf Creek, the “Real Gold in Grass Valley.”

Urban river and creek restoration has boosted property values and economic vitality in San Luis Obispo, Napa, Santa Rosa, and Tempe, AZ. Plans are underway for a major rehabilitation of the Los Angeles River. Freeway interchanges, bridges, and places to shop locally are indeed essential to our vitality, as would be high speed internet access. But the Wolf Creek Parkway will make a statement and put Grass Valley “on the map.” The Parkway epitomizes a bold move into 21st Century thinking.

Let the conversation continue. For additional information please visit the website of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance.

Bruce_Herring_thumbBruce Herring is a former whitewater rafting guide for O.A.R.S., running in the 70s and 80s on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, American, Rogue, San Juan, Tatshenshini, and Grand Canyon. He spent ten years teaching and as Principal of Bitney Springs High School in Grass Valley, stepping aside in 2013. He currently serves as the Managing Director for A&B Associates, and volunteers for the Wolf Creek Community Alliance. See his blog at “Steward’s Log.”

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6 Responses to “City Needs Comprehensive Development Plan Centered Around the “Real Gold in Grass Valley””
  1. V Rapone says:

    Here in San Luis Obispo, yes our creek restoration increased property values. These increased values pushed an already stifling rent issue beyond the bearable point for many small businesses. So we traded a quaint, mom-and-pop feel, for trendy national chains. Abercrombie and Fitch can afford to pay $15k per month.

    Ultimately, we ended up with streets full of billboards and signs, and a creek full of homeless (because it’s so nice, it’s now the spot to be for squatters).

    There is a price, beyond the fiscal, we pay for designer down-towns. We paid for our downtown, with our heart.

  2. Steven Frisch says:

    The issue that Bruce seems to be getting at, and the one I see commonly in rural communities in the Sierra Nevada, is the lack of leadership on developing a comprehensive collaborative vision of the community that the vast majority of residents can get behind and support.

    That vision needs to include multiple parts: land use, economic development objectives, economic competitiveness, infrastructure, physical and social mobility, social infrastructure, public outreach and engagement, recreation, open space, and habitat and species protection. Included in the long range strategy should be development of recreational amenities like the Wolf Creek Corridor.

    The goal of such an effort should be to identify a range of approaches and activities that aim to improve the welfare and livelihoods of all of the people living in rural areas. The era of reacting to peoples ideas about just what they want to do in our communities, without proactively identifying community vision, is over.

    I have no doubt that a proposal like the Dorsey interchange proposal was inevitable considering the style and form that development has taken in our rural communities. Local government is used to reacting to proposals rather than doing the advance planning necessary. And often the law of unintended consequences leads to exactly the type of gentrification that Mr. Rapone identified above.

    The problem is that local governments often lack the resources to engage in long range planning and thus fail to recognize that being proactive is actually less costly in the long run than reacting to individual proposals. The people who end up paying these extra costs are usually the project proponent in the short run, but the community in the long run when poorly planned development affects employment, infrastructure costs, housing and open space.

    If the collapse of the real estate and capital markets should have taught us anything it is that we should be doing a better job of anticipating the future and agreeing on desired outcomes, and that takes real effort and compromise, which is a learned trait.

  3. RickD says:

    Please excuse the comments of a non resident of the area in question, and understand that I do realize that the future of Grass Valley and every other small community is in the hands of those who actually live there and will be most affected by any plan for the future.

    Having said that I rise to object to the term “revitalize Grass Valley”. Now, if the thrust of this discussion was on the order of what makes the community better for its residents, for their lifestyles, I would probably remain silent. But when this term boils down to what will bring more revenue into the community, and sadly, regardless of the cost to said residents lives and futures. I think we see a real problem.

    Instead of pondering the unique nature of that beautiful place, of that Sierra locale, we see what will inevitably be an homogenizing of that town making it the same as every other little town in America with uninspired leadership thinking only of increased revenue. Before any knee jerk reactions to this appear I hasten to add that, yes, I do understand that improvements often take money to put into place. But rather than shoot for tens of millions by destroying the real value of Grass Valley with malls, signage, and transparent efforts to bring in consumers rather than people thirsty for reality, the same damn solutions that wreck small town America everywhere, why not truly give some thought to what Grass Valley will become and decide whether that is really in the best interests of that community, and not just in the best interests of the leaders thereof and of those individuals who will profit most.

  4. Don Pelton says:


    I always read your comments on Sierra Voices with interest, because they are invariably thoughtful and balanced.

    In this case, though, I’m a bit perplexed by your reaction to Bruce’s use of the term “revitalize Grass Valley,” as if it implies a very narrow focus on revenue only, with no regard for a whole related assortment of social and community values.

    From my personal acquaintance with Bruce and my personal familiarity with the issue of the Wolf Creek Parkway and my admittedly slight understanding of the whole question of development planning — or non-planning! — in Grass Valley, I can assure you that Bruce is promoting a vision of the broadest and most generous kind.

    What it might help you to understand — the context for this issue — is that (1) the planning process in our community is often more reactive than proactive (see Steve Frisch’s good explanation for this in his comments just before yours) (2) decisions are often made with insufficient feedback from the community at large (3) development decisions too often seem to reflect the narrow interests of one politically dominant segment of the local economy (e.g., builders as opposed to small business people, etc) and finally (4) development often reflects the myth that environmental and economic values are inherently in conflict with one another, rather than integrally and mutually interdependent.

    To be sure, you may often find a focus on business and money in our discussions of growth up here. But that’s only natural; in many ways we’re hurting, having been hit hard by the current recession.

    But at the same time, you will find that community leaders like Bruce Herring, Parkway Steward for the Wolf Creek Community Alliance (a watershed revitalization non-profit) and Steve Frisch ( President of Sierra Business Council, an organization that, as they say, “fosters thriving communities in the Sierra Nevada region through ‘on the ground’ local projects that promote, develop and amplify the area’s social, environmental and economic capital”) … are promoting a vision of responsible growth of that larger kind that I believe you are also advocating.

  5. RickD says:


    Thank you for the compliment, it is most appreciated I assure you.

    As to my position on the term “revitalize Grass Valley” it is based upon a couple of factors, none of which is intended to slander or diminish the efforts of Mr. Herring. Firstly some the phrasing in the article, as ” It has been suggested the new Dorsey interchange is the true “silver bullet.” It has been suggested a new “Lifestyle Mall” at the interchange is the key to our future, complete with a big or at least a medium box. “It’s what the people want.”, while perhaps not reflective of the opinions of those visionaries of whom you speak, they are all too much in evidence in so very many “revitalization” plans everywhere.

    I apologize for the clumsiness of my first effort here, it was not, I assure you, a slander of those whose enlightened vision might save Grass Valley from its possible fate of confusing revitalization with malls, blight and cementing creeks to gain parking lots or whatever. I reacted only to the frequency in which such plans go terribly awry.

  6. Don Pelton says:

    By the way, Rick, if you’re interested in the subject of development in this area,. you can find some excellent commentary and public discussion in Jeff Pelline’s recent postings in his Sierra Foothill’s Report:

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