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2011 Year in Review: It’s the economy, for better or worse

The official groundbreaking on the new San Benito County Courthouse took place last year.

Economic stories of success and failure continued to dominate the local news scene in 2011, with the various machinations of financial tumult affecting nearly every aspect of life in San Benito County.
The year started off with unemployment rates hovering around 20 percent, though that figure had fallen by nearly nine percent as national and state economic conditions improved slightly as the year wore on and the farm season kicked in.
Local government officials and business people worked to reverse the doldrums that mirrored – and often resulted from – state and national conditions. What follows is a recap of some of the stories that made news in the county over the past 12 months:

Back from the brink
Highlighting the volatile nature of business this year, Bolado Park Golf Course began 2011 closing for three days in early January before re-opening after the financially-troubled club received a loan designed to keep it open until a state board could make a decision on whether to alter its five-year, $25,000-per-year lease. Opened in 1946, the oldest course in the county faced declining membership and revenues over the past decade. As the year comes to an end, Bolado remains open under a new general manager and a newly-constituted board of directors.

The ‘real’ Hollister
The Hollister City Council voted to spend $5,425 toward the downtown association’s hiring of a consultant to create a new brand for the city, revealing in the spring that the city’s slogan would be “The Original,” giving a wink to the popular store, Hollister Clothing Co.

New businesses
Despite the struggling economy, entrepreneurs still took a chance on running businesses in San Benito County.
Dona Maria’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant moved from Tres Pinos to Hollister, taking over the space of the former business Pancho’s at 202 Fourth St.
The Community Media Access Partnership opened an office space in Hollister at 829 San Benito St. The nonprofit broadcasts government meetings and offers training, equipment rental and access to television studios for local residents.
West Marine renewed its lease on its 240,000-square-foot Hollister distribution center on 2395 Bert Drive through 2021. The company is a boating supply and accessory retailer with 327 stores in 38 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Turkey.
Cold Storage CrossFit, located at 320 Hillcrest Road, opened in a former cold storage building in March, offering workout enthusiasts another option.
Despite joining a list of businesses that closed up shop in downtown Hollister in recent years, Serene Home – a home decoration and accessory store – which closed its doors at 243 Sixth St. after nearly four years in operation, the business planned to continue as a Web-based company.
County supervisors in October approved a proposal for a 19,500-square-foot commercial center near the entrance to Ridgemark Golf and Country Club. Plans call for the development of “neighborhood-friendly” shops, including a market. The unanimous decision came three weeks after supervisors sent the proposal back to staffers to make amendments to the plan.
There were many more courageous stories from upstart businesses in 2011 as the county tries to turn a corner in the rough economy.
Going out of business
It wasn’t all good news, of course, in the business community, as businesses large and small fell victim to economic conditions.
Blockbuster Inc. was sold to a group of investors in February, meaning the bankrupt video rental store had to begin liquidating its stores. The Hollister store would eventually face the fate of more than 600 other stores around the country and close, leaving the city without a video rental store.
Milgard Windows & Doors announced in November that it would be closing its Hollister manufacturing plant, which had operated since 1986 – a move expected to spur 135 job losses and the sale of the company’s local facility on Bert Drive.
County supervisors denied a resident’s proposal to develop a flea market on San Felipe Road near the Hollister Airport. Opponents contended the planned market was an unsafe distance from runways and would also cause traffic problems.

The business of government
Local government officials worked to keep businesses afloat through incentive programs designed to provide some stability in uncertain times.
Hollister Honda was granted a two-year extension by the city’s Redevelopment Agency on $1.9 million in loans on the 22,000-square-foot business at the city’s north entrance. Marty Greenwood told officials that the business needed to sell 50 to 60 units per months in order to turn a profit, but was instead averaging half that.
The Hollister City Council in June approved new commercial facade improvement program guidelines that will limit the amount of money the Redevelopment Agency will loan to businesses for exterior paint jobs. The modification was spurred in part by two $20,000 loans the RDA made to K&S Market in 2009 for painting of the shopping center that formerly housed Fortino’s Total Home store and other businesses on Tres Pinos Road.
In May, the county began a multi-agency strategy designed to reduce the amount of unlicensed street vendors peddling their wares without permits. Officials said health concerns from lack of sanitation were among the top reasons for the stepped-up enforcement.

Legal maneuvering
Some local stories played out in the courts or had the specter of court action hanging over them in 2011.
About six months after it set up shop in Los Banos, Hollister-based medical marijuana dispensary Purple Cross Rx closed that location and made plans to reopen in San Benito County. It soon opened again in a building on Bolsa Road, setting up what would become an ongoing fight with the county about whether a dispensary should be allowed to operate as an agricultural business.
The county in February imposed a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries and later made that ban permanent. After maneuvering on the county level, the matter is expected to become a court case sometime in the new year as the two sides remain at odds about whether Purple Cross can legally operate.
A trio of local companies settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit with a Utah woman who nearly died after eating spinach tainted with E. coli. The undisclosed settlement closed a case in which a 26-year-old married mother of three became deathly ill after eating Dole pre-washed baby spinach in 2006, developing a sever case of irritable bowel syndrome. The settlement was reached with Dole Food Co., San Juan Bautista-based Natural Selection Foods and Mission Organics of Salinas.

New beginnings

Stagnation wasn’t the buzz word in all aspects of this year’s news, as a number of stories detailed new projects planned or underway in San Benito County.
The nearly $4.7 million demolition and reconstruction of the downtown Hollister fire station began and was expected to be done by early spring 2012. The former tractor garage was converted to a single-story fire station in 1968. The new station will be a two-story, 12,000-square-foot facility – double the space of its predecessor.
In an effort to battle continuing enrollment declines, which affect how much money schools get from the state, the Hollister School District in February implemented a policy limiting the number of students that could transfer to other local districts. This school year alone, more than 600 students transferred to other districts.
Construction began on Gateway Palms, a $6 million, 32-unit affordable housing project at the end of Fifth Street. Rents range from $389 for a studio apartment to $952 for a three-bedroom – with rents determined by income level.
The Masonic Lodge at the corner of San Benito and Fourth streets in downtown Hollister was re-dedicated in a ceremony held April 16. The ceremony capped years of interior and exterior renovations on the building, built for $21,000 after the 1906 earthquake.
Dunne Park received a few facelifts in 2011, including newly painted railings around its clubhouse, new recycled rubber material in the playground and refurbished restrooms.
Students and other bicyclists will have a safer route to travel between San Juan Bautista and Anzar High School by next year after the county approved a three-mile, $1 million bike lane project. Seven-foot-wide lanes will be built on both sides of San Juan Highway to improve the mobility and student safety of bicyclists from the northwestern edge of the city to the school.
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the 41,500-square-foot San Benito County Courthouse was held in February, marking the start of a project that was scheduled for completion in late 2012 – though as of the end of the year that was all of the noticeable progress made.
Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in June broke ground on a new women’s center, funded by Measure L, which was passed by San Benito County voters in May 2005. The three-story building will house childbirth services, mammography and bone densitometry services, and a resource library.
San Benito Bank announced it would change its name to Santa Barbara Bank & Trust eight months after its parent company was acquired by a private equity firm. The bank also moved its downtown Hollister location from 530 San Benito St. to 650 San Benito St.
Aris Helicopters agreed to a lease with the city to operate at the building formerly used by the Gavilan College Aviation Program for nearly 50 years at the local airport. The city estimated it would bring in about $45,600 in annual revenue from the deal.
Heavenly Bakery, taking over the spot of the former Elegant Touch in downtown Hollister, hoped to open before Valentine’s Day. For owners Sheila and Bob Stevens, it was the third downtown business, joining Knife & Fork restaurant and She’s clothing store.
Calling for help
County supervisors heard the possible benefits and issues with transferring 911 emergency response services to Santa Cruz County. Reported savings would be roughly $97,000 for the county and more than $260,000 for the city of Hollister.

Community action
Giving back is a hallmark of the community, and local agencies banked on that fact in the year that was.
The United Way re-launched in San Benito County, nearly a decade after it went away. The local branch restarted under the umbrella of the Community Foundation for San Benito County with goals to give, advocate and volunteer.
In June, the Community Foundation launched a “Give San Benito” campaign so that the foundation could serve as the vehicle through which local residents can donate to local nonprofits. The slogan, “Live Here, Give Here” was part of the effort.

Despite the down times, stories of innovation were common on local news pages.
The sand at Hollister parks was replaced with a recycled rubber material made from tires. The project was funded by a $500,000 grant the city received from the Integrated Waste Management Board. The project was expected to put to use tires that would have otherwise filled landfills and also provide a cleaner playing surface for park users.
Solar panels went online at the city’s wastewater plant, beginning a 30-year agreement expected to save Hollister up to $10 million in power costs.
In June, developers submitted a preliminary application to build a solar energy facility just outside of the Hollister city limits, near Union and Cienega roads. The proposed project site would feature a 1.5-megawatt solar photovoltaic energy-generating facility on about 32 acres.
Hollister officials rejected a proposed agreement that would have installed an electric vehicle charging station in the city, citing concerns about the contract with the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. The city of San Juan Bautista did not deny a similar request, however, and is expected to get a charging station in the coming months.

A cut above
Haircut 5 on Tres Pinos Road celebrated its 500,000th haircut in January, 22 years after it opened. Local resident Ronna Gilani was the milestone client, earning a lifetime supply of free cuts.

What’s old is new again
A growing and aging collection of books, manuscripts, photographs and other materials related to the history of San Juan Bautista have increased the need for digital preservation of the artifacts. In response, volunteer Ken Halla and other members of the town’s Historical Society to begin the Digital San Juan Bautista Project, designed to use modern technology to save the written and oral history of the town for future generations.
Government dealings
One business that could not stop working was local government, which faced funding hurdles and dealt with budget cuts that cut services and threatened jobs.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate the roughly 400 redevelopment agencies in California – including Hollister’s – as a way to redirect tax revenues had local officials concerned about the future impact on development if redevelopment were stalled. The Hollister RDA was eventually put on hold, in essence, with no new projects planned as officials wait to see if lawsuits seeking to stop the dissolution of agencies throughout the state are effective.
After many months without a parking enforcement officer in downtown Hollister, the city announced it was resuming patrols. Following a six-year hiatus, the city re-implemented enforcement from October 2009 until August 2010. The city in April raised ticket fines by $3 to offset a state rule ordering that some be diverted to a Trial Court Trust Fund.
County supervisors approved a $33 million 2011-12 budget, featuring a 3 percent salary cut for the board, a $100,000 reduction in the county counsel’s budget and other budget-saving measures designed to close a nearly $8.9 million budget gap.
Weekly street sweeping services were another victim of the stagnant economy as the City of Hollister switched to bi-weekly service starting Oct. 1. The city said the change from weekly service was necessitated by increased operational costs, particularly fuel and maintenance.
The second annual Hollister Airshow filled the skies above the Hollister Airport on Memorial Day weekend, serving as a promotional event both for the city and the airport. The event lost money and attracted fewer attendees and participants than its inaugural year, but a report from the organizer said its estimated economic impact on the community tripled to more than $156,000.
The Hollister City Council approved new traffic impact fees that would drastically drop levies for residential units while spiking currently non-existent fees for commercial projects and others. Fees for single-family residential units would decrease from $26,382 to $5,233. Commercial fees would jump from $0 to $3,395.
Supervisors in May rescinded the long-standing growth management ordinance that some officials said bogged down the permitting process and pushed away developers. A majority of supervisors decided annual caps were no longer necessary because they impeded development by creating a more complex and time-consuming process for approvals.
The reinstatement of funding that was expected to be cut from the state budget allowed the local sheriff’s office to rescind the layoff of a lieutenant and two correctional officers. County supervisors previously had trimmed nearly $800,000 from the sheriff’s office budget and sent layoff notices to seven employees during budget hearings in July.
San Juan Bautista officials in January considered paying an animal wrangler $5 per bird to round up the city’s famed feral street chickens. The city later backed off that plan, choosing instead to have city public works staffers collect the animals in pens in the city yard and offer them for adoption to local ranchers and others.

Comings and goings
The Hollister Police Department hired a gang officer, 31-year-old Navy veteran Carlos Rodriguez, who previously served as the local school beat officer. A grant is funding the position, which focuses on suppression, prevention and education.
Hollister School District first-term Trustee Joe Navarro resigned from the board, citing health reasons and stress caused by the district’s financial situation. The retired teacher was elected to the board in November 2010 and was a strong proponent of the failed June ballot measure for a $96 parcel tax.
Longtime county Farm Advisor Bill Coates retired this past summer after nearly 35 years in the U.C. Cooperative Extension office.
Former Hollister City Manager Roger Grimsley was named San Juan Bautista’s interim city manager, replacing Stephen Julian, who tendered his resignation earlier in the year.

Looking back, looking ahead
San Benito County residents held local ceremonies to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Groups in Hollister and San Juan Bautista organized events that included local veterans, fire and law enforcement officers and Red Cross volunteers.

Schools face budget impacts
The Hollister School District was one of 13 in the state in serious financial jeopardy, appearing on the periodically released list of districts that will not meet their financial obligations this fiscal year or next.
Voters in June rejected the Hollister School District’s proposed $96 parcel tax, garnering 51.3 percent of the vote when a two-thirds majority was required for passage. A little more than 28 percent of registered voters turned in a ballot for the measure, which would have raised $1.2 million annually over a four-year period to help the cash-strapped district.
R.O. Hardin School became the first campus in the Hollister district to have a uniform policy, though it is voluntary because California bars public institutions from enforcing rules or penalizing those who decline participation. The K-6 school on Line Street asked students to wear khaki or navy-blue pants or skirts, along with white shirts. Supporters said uniforms could cut down on bullying over fashion choices as well as simplify the wardrobe requirements for families struggling to make ends meet.

It’s still a great place to live
Despite the economic stress and high unemployment rate locally, San Benito County was named the second healthiest county in California – trailing only Marin – according to a project by the University of Wisconsin Population Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study took into account multiple factors that influence health, such as personal behavior, social and economic status and the environment.