Mariposa County looks to improve economy as election looms

05/17/2014 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 4:09 PM

As any region experiences population growth, communities find themselves in a tough spot: determining how to maintain the preservation of natural resources and agricultural as well as recreational spaces while at the same time providing for future development and economic stability. This presents a challenge all rural counties eventually face.

In next month’s primary election, two seats with the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors will be voted on. The main issue of concern for Mariposa candidates and residents is this topic of building a sustainable community without losing rural character.

Michael Rieux Jr. is the owner of Mariposa Fruit and Nut Company and Oakhurst Fruit and Nut Company. He moved to Mariposa from Fresno three years ago. Allowing room for family-owned businesses such as his is part of the small-town charm he and so many others value.

Rieux is only one of dozens of struggling business owners dependent on seasonal tourism. As a gateway community of Yosemite, tourism is a major contributor in keeping Mariposa afloat economically.

But some residents don’t think tourism is enough, especially when wildfires, rock slides or government shutdowns occur. Because when the park suffers, Mariposa suffers.

Other concerns include the number of residents living at or below poverty level, and the possibility of the community becoming another California ghost town.

Jamie Neurohr is a Mariposa County resident and employee of the U.S. Postal Service. Shaking her head when asked about the local economy, she told of friends who lost their jobs last year due to the Rim fire and the shutdown.

Although she admitted she’s not sure how to go about solving the region’s economic problem, she does believe there should be a way to balance the desire to build a sustainable community without losing Mariposa’s rural character.

Some ideas being proposed by concerned parties involve strengthening the connections between those who produce, such as local ranchers and farmers, with those who serve and, or consume, including restaurants, markets, hotels and cultural venues. Branding our own products could also generate more jobs and stimulate local economy.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state produces more than half of American-grown vegetables, nuts and fruits at more than 80,000 farms and ranches.

With nearly 300 days of sunshine a year, plus ideal soil and growing conditions, it’s understandable for ranchers and farmers to hold tightly to the land. Most support them in protecting it from overdevelopment.

Yet in a changing world the communities that do not grow by adopting positive advancements, industrially and technologically, may face stagnation.

Grass Valley and Murphys are two examples of communities that have tapped into available resources and realized the potential of small-scale local industry. In addition, by investing in themselves as viable destinations, they’ve allowed commercial growth appropriate and beneficial for the region.

Healthy small towns attract tourists and potential residents.

Mariposa County can learn from the examples of small towns in California and across the country. We have the ability to develop small companies offering products, services, arts and culture that are born and bred right here. This in turn would draw business from outside the area.

Of course, we’ll continue luring visitors to our county to enjoy the Gold Rush heritage and architecture, the diverse arts and crafts, recreational opportunities and much more that’s expressly unique to our region.

With clear communication between government and private agencies, focused commercial growth and plans that can be realistically implemented, everyone will benefit.

For the past several months eight candidates have researched the county’s strengths and weaknesses. Personal time and money have been invested in printing and distributing literature, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing and attending meetings, answering questions and working hard to voice their solutions.

All agree, changes must be made on several levels.

Voters’ decisions could induce the needed improvements. Or the problems may continue compounding, increasing frustration within the community. The upcoming election could also reveal how unified or divided the residents are on these issues.

It’s not an easy decision, and what a conclusion will look like is still uncertain. But if others have found a workable solution, so can we.

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