Adirondack Talk!

North Creek Growth

From: Dave S., Half Moon Bay, CA
Category: Growth Issues
Date: 20 Jan 2013
Time: 16:20:53 -0800
Remote Name:


I go to the Adirondacks to fish for trout every year and have made lots of friends in the Warren County-North Creek area. Over the years, I have learned a bit about the direction in which North Creek seems to be heading in its quest to promote economic growth. I will stick out my neck and try to predict the future based on what happened to my hometown when the town politicians implemented a misguided (in my opinion) optimistic "If we build it, they will come" strategy for growth; instead of first building a carefully managed supply- and demand-based model.

These are my own views. I'm not pointing fingers, only describing what happened in a small hamlet similar to North Creek.

I spent most of my adult life in Half Moon Bay, a small picturesque fishing and farming town in Northern California 25 miles south of San Francisco. The elected local officials decided  to turn the town into a tourist-serving Monterey Peninsula-Carmel clone. The town exploded into numerous -- far too many -- tourist-serving retail boutiques, upscale restaurants and expensive motels/hotels and palatial-sized houses built on speculation as the town tried to achieve prosperity through upscale growth and inflation. House flipping became popular as real estate prices skyrocketed. So did commercial property rents; many to the extent that, unbelievably, a person could get better rental/lease deals in Manhattan! Furthermore, the town -- to the detriment of local businesses -- has always welcomed, with hopeful open arms, carpetbaggers who added to the illusion of prosperity, while the reality was that the outsiders skimmed the cream off the economic top and left the unprofitable dirty work -- keeping tourists coming back and cleaning up after them -- to the year-round locals. Yet, everyone appeared to be happy; business was seemingly booming and things were fine --so long as losses could be covered with home equity loans. Keep in mind that this expansion took place during the boom times of the 1990's and 2000's in the San Francisco Bay Area -- in one of the wealthiest counties in the Nation. There was plenty of money available for unchecked speculation!  

Most of the solid, long-time core businesses either closed or were sold to newcomers as the town re-invented itself as an expensive place to live, with highly overpriced real estate; and as an overpriced tourist destination with overpriced motels and hotels. The town essentially became a weekend getaway for upscale visitors and an expensive upscale bedroom community for locals where the roads are miserably gridlocked every weekday as local workers drive to their high-paying jobs "over the hill" (the San Francisco Bay Peninsula and Silicon Valley) so that they can pay for their overpriced houses that they really can't afford; their 2, 3 or more overpriced automobiles that they really can't afford and the large families that they really can't afford. On weekends, the same locals can't go anywhere because the roads are even more congested than on weekdays -- this time with tourists! 2 hours to crawl 8 miles is not uncommon and, occasionally, 6-hour traffic jams are experienced! To make matters even worse, there are only 2 roads -- both narrow and only 2-lanes -- in and out of the town; each of which, almost predictably, can be expected to close several times each year due to accidents and mudslides. A few years ago, one of the 2 roads, Hwy 1, was closed for 6 months! Our business lost half its revenues during the closure. How would North Creek businesses cope if Rte 28 closed for 6 months?

Even though large numbers of tourists go to the beaches on summer weekends, most of the tourism-based businesses are struggling to stay alive. Half Moon Bay tourism is a weekend, mostly summertime, business; yet the exorbitantly sky-high rents need to be paid all year. In Half Moon Bay, businesses essentially work like hell all summer to make up for what they lose all winter. When the house of cards collapsed and reality eventually hit home, and many priced themselves out of the tourism market because of the prohibitively high costs of doing business in a tiny expensive town, with few exceptions, the only profitable businesses left were the non-tourism-based ones. The cozy, funky little restaurants and cafes were replaced by Burger King, McDonald's and 3 Amigos. Even the real estate interests suffered (and still are suffering) -- this, in one of the wealthiest counties in the Nation.  

I see North Creek following the same destructive path and is "putting the cart before the horse" in its quest for economic growth.. It's my view that promoting businesses like the upscale "Exchange" and the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad, without any real demand for them, is exactly the wrong approach for the area. There is nothing special about these businesses, and to think that they are some kind of Holy Grail that will flood North Creek with tourism dollars is purely wishful thinking.  Even ignoring that retail and transportation, generally, are terrible businesses in themselves, there is nothing unique that I can see that either the Exchange or the SNCRR has to offer tourists that will attract significant numbers to North Creek.

What North Creek really needs is a world class destination attraction -- the key phrase here is world class --that will attract hordes of tourists -- not merely a few dozen -- who will spend "tons of money" over a short period of time -- say one month -- and then LEAVE  (thus keeping North Creek unspoiled for most of the year, without having to absorb the problems that Half Moon Bay now faces -- such as permanently gridlocked roads, gangs, etc. -- brought on by a large year-round population.)  My experience has been that putting up with large crowds is tolerable for a few weeks; if the short season is profitable enough for the local businesses to carry them through the rest of the year.

It is the money spent by the tourists -- not money spent promoting marginal businesses like the "Exchange' and the SNCRR -- that will create demand for ALL of the town's products and services, including "The Exchange's" and the SNCRR's!   If the current "build it and they will come" attitude persists, my prediction is that -- like Half Moon Bay -- commercial rents will eventually increase to unsustainable levels, and only established property owners will be able to turn a profit by renting or selling to another crop of unsuspecting, optimistic and naive entrepreneur hopefuls. Ever-ongoing upscale growth inflation that inevitably will turn into uncontrolled growth benefits only a few special interests and destroys a town's legacy values and quality of life.

My first-choice suggestion for North Creek (among other alternatives) would be a large world-class multi-week so-called "Fringe-Festival" type event in which the entire town participates and provides venues for artists, performers, comedians and anyone and anything else that qualifies as legal entertainment. My personal preference would be something along the lines of the Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival.

The dollar amounts spent at Fringe Festivals are staggering. In 2010, US $377 million -- more than one-third of a billion dollars -- was injected into Edinburgh's economy!!!! Quoted from a Wikipedia article: "The 2011 [Edinburgh] Fringe [Festival] sold 1,877,119 tickets for 41,689 performances of 2,542 shows, in 258 venues, over 25 days, for an average of more than 75,000 admissions and 1,360 performances per day. There were an estimated 21,192 performers, from 60 countries participating. There were 607 free shows."

Venues can be anything from the obvious -- community theatres, churches, restaurants, schools, etc. -- to the not so obvious; at the Edinburgh Festival, venues have included a public toilet (!), the back of a taxi (!), and private homes.  

A small town like North Creek could never afford top-name entertainers to attract meaningful numbers of visitors. Fringe performers, on the other hand, are essentially free; most are looking for venues at which they can perform and gain exposure and recognition.

Many cities -- small and large -- are getting serious about Fringe-type festivals. These include: Minneapolis-St Paul, Chicago, Orlando, Phoenix, San Francisco, Philadelphia, several Canadian cities and towns including Montreal, and more.

This type of attraction -- on a smaller scale, of course -- is what North Creek needs to generate sustainable economic activity without destroying the town's quality of life and legacy values with what inevitably will turn into uncontrolled growth. It would be a disaster if North Creek turned into another Lake George, Lake Placid, or even worse -- another expensive bedroom community like Half Moon Bay!

Prosperity should benefit everyone; not just a few special interests.

Last changed: 06/21/14