With five candidates vying for three seats — and only one incumbent in the running — the Grass Valley City Council will have at least two new members following the November election.
Councilwoman Jan Arbuckle is running for reelection, joined by challengers Bob Branstrom, Steve Conrad, Tom Ivy, and Edward Peevey. Mayor Lisa Swarthout and Councilman Howard Levine are not running for reelection.
Jan Arbuckle said she’s running for reelection because she has experience advocating for local issues on the state level through her appointment on the League of California Cities.
“I have more to offer. And I say that because of everything I’ve been involved in, especially on the state level bringing recognition and a voice to rural California,” Arbuckle said. “There’s a lot of things that are still on the state level that I need to be involved in to make sure that we in rural Nevada County, and Grass Valley specifically, have a voice at the table.”
She said increasing broadband connectivity is key for the city’s economic future and feels Grass Valley is in a position to take advantage of that through fiber, if the city can work with telecommunications companies.
“It just makes no sense that we have fiber going into City Hall, into Grass Valley, and nobody’s willing to connect to it because none of the major companies are working with people,” Arbuckle said.
While COVID-19 and economic uncertainty may require the city to pivot its financial strategy, she said the city is doing OK now and does not foresee a move away from the tourism industry.
On cannabis businesses, Arbuckle said she is now open to the idea, but would need to see a specific business plan before supporting one in the city.
“I’ve gone to a dispensary in Sacramento that reminded me of a ‘60s head shop — including the Jimi Hendrix music — to one that was a spa-like, serene, healing environment. And you have everything in between. I honestly did have to see everything and review it before I can know.”
According to Bob Branstrom, the biggest issue facing the city is the economy, which is made up of lower wage service jobs in the “lifestyle economy” like tourism and recreation, and more living wage jobs in a production economy of tech and small manufacturing. A key to attracting higher wage jobs is a commitment to fiber optics, he said, including publicly owned infrastructure.
“What I’m proposing is that we do what rural communities across the country are doing, which is to set up cooperatives to, as a community, own the local infrastructure and build out the fiber optics from the main fiber optic network to homes and businesses in the last mile,” Branstrom said. “The reason that hasn’t happened is because, I think, locally, we’ve made the mistake of relying on private industry to do this and private industry doesn’t see rural areas as profitable.”
Ultimately, Branstrom said he’d like to see a western Nevada County co-op made up of several jurisdictions starting small and slowly coming together as they expand coverage.
Branstrom said with the economic shift to production, the city would remain a tourist destination, but it would have to adapt to the new economy.
“I don’t see that as a direction to grow and expand for the city as a real benefit,” he said. “We can link it into other important parts of our economy like recreation and the arts — my gosh, the arts in this town are incredible — and that’s a big part of both the tourist economy or the lifestyle economy.”
He said the city’s work on the Wolf Creek Trail is an example of the kind of future for tourism he’d like to see.
“Because of the vision we had in the city of providing a good recreational resource using the assets that we have, we now have a really nice asset with a trail,” Branstrom said. “This is one of the kinds of things we can do to make Grass Valley appealing to visitors.”
On housing, Branstrom said the city should focus on workforce housing, cheaper housing options like modular designs, and streamlining the process to make it easier and cheaper for developers to build.
Steve Conrad said if elected he would work to decrease the polarization in the city and build community, with experience listening to all sides of the aisle through his work as a personal trainer and coach.
“Being able to understand the real root of what’s driving people’s decisions and then figuring out what’s actually going on, taking the facts and coming up with a decision or policy or what we need to do to move forward… my ability to listen to both sides, to do my own research on top of that, and to come up with a very objective opinion on how we can move things forward together, is one of the reasons why I think people asked me to run,” Conrad said.
He said the ability to have all sides come to the table on an issue will be integral in bringing broadband service to the city.
“Being able to also work with the private sector and to be able to get broadband out here, that’s something that we’ll have to deal with directly with Comcast or AT&T. Because they’re a private business, they have no reason to bring those services up here, unless they see that it’s going to be able to make them a profit somehow,” Conrad said. “We may be able to meet halfway, you know, and connect so that we can, you know, defer or share those costs. But once again, that’s also going to be part the county, part the city, part another city so it’s just figuring out how we can bring everybody to the table for some of these common goals.”
Conrad said the city needs to increase the housing stock, but it can’t be narrowly focused on low income housing. He said the Dorsey Marketplace project was a good example of compromise, and that by increasing single-family homes it would encourage people in lower income homes to move up and create space for others who need low-income housing.
“You also need to develop houses that families want to move into and grow a family in and, you know, build their life here, essentially.”
Planning Commissioner Tom Ivy said giving people more power to develop on their own will improve the city’s economic and housing situation, allowing developers to remain flexible in responding to market forces.
“There’s a saying in the planning community that you can plan for big “D” Development, or you can plan for small “d” development, but you can’t plan for both,” Ivy said. “We’ve seen a lot of small towns across the country in the past 10 years evolve the way they think about planning and developing to focus heavily on incentivizing the smaller community members, to give them the power to develop.”
To make that happen, changes to the general plan and zoning codes would be on the table, he said.
“I think that our community is special, that small businesses are the backbone of this community, and that our development patterns weren’t necessarily keeping true to our local community,” Ivy said. “We absolutely want to modernize our zoning code, so that our neighborhoods stay true to the character that makes Grass Valley a special place (and) gives much more power to those neighborhoods to develop mentally, emotionally, and evolve on their own terms.”
If elected, he said he would work to increase community events for small businesses and take advantage of the city’s outdoor recreation spaces to drive tourism and the local economy.
“There’s no silver bullet, but I do think things like continuing to make the best possible use of Wolf Creek watershed will be taking baby steps towards making our community more enjoyable and the type of place that more commerce happens and more people come to have fun that they love being at,” he said, suggesting live music or food trucks as possibilities.
“Really making the best of our local place and continuing to improve it. A lot of good, hard work’s been done by the city government in that regard in continuing to make our development patterns super community-centric, giving people the ability to reinvent and re-imagine their own city block.”
Edward Peevey said if elected he would look for grant funding and increase community outreach and events to help local businesses and lessen tension in the city. He said the closure of Mill Street to vehicles in downtown Grass Valley could be a model going forward.
“We need to have more social events to bring people together, especially to talk. Enough with the hate, you know, the hate needs to go away. We’re not that community,” Peevey said. “We need to come together with compassion, understanding, and just meet. It’s great to close downtown, because that brings people together in one area and I think we need more of that, more stuff downtown, more street functions downtown, where people come together.”
Peevey said he’d like to lower the cost for developers to build in the city, would encourage non-traditional housing, and would look into fast-tracking projects to quickly increase the housing stock.
“Everybody is pricing for Bay Area people to come up here and our locals can’t afford to live here. It’s sad,” he said. “We need to make it cheaper to build these homes at a price where people who live here can afford them. Our kids who grew up here can’t afford them now.”
Peevey, a drug dependency specialist, said he’s running to give back to the community after it gave him a second chance following his own addiction issues. Because of his background he said he previously took a stand against cannabis businesses in the city, believing them to be a gateway drug, but now he believes the medical and economic benefits outweigh the negatives.
He said growing the tourism industry will be key to an economic recovery.
“One of our greatest assets we have is tourism and that’s because of our history, our historical value here,” Peevey said. “We need to grow on that more, with our parks and (other attractions) and just bring that history back to life.”
To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email [email protected] or call 530-477-4229.
More: Grass Valley City Council candidates share their vision
More from The Union