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How Does Idaho Innovate?

“So…what is JUMP?” Joe Gagliardi, CEO of the Folsom Chamber of Commerce, spoke for our entire delegation as we stood atop the 6-story monolith in downtown Boise, Idaho.

JUMP – or “Jack’s Urban Meeting Place” – is a bizarre, Jetsons-inspired building built by J.R. Simplot, the billionaire farmer most famous for supplying Idaho and Oregon-grown potatoes for use in McDonald’s fries. The building serves as a towering public hangout spot, tractor museum, classroom, and features a 5-story-tall spiral slide down to the ground floor. I still don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty cool!

Jack’s Urban Meeting Place in Boise

For 12 straight years, the El Dorado County and Folsom Chambers of Commerce have collaborated to bring local leaders to pioneering cities and towns across North America. The goal of these “study missions” is to see firsthand new ideas for advancing livability and economic growth, and to take these learnings back to the Sacramento region. In 2018, our group of 24 participants – current and former elected officials, businesspeople, and community leaders – headed north to Boise and the smaller resort town of McCall over four days to see how Idaho is innovating.

My major takeaways:

  • GROWTH: The Boise Metropolitan Area is the fastest-growing in the entire U.S., currently home to around 700,000 people (half of Idaho’s population).
  • The City of Boise has some great things going for it – it sits in close proximity to mountains and agricultural land with a vibrant riverfront, is home to the second largest Basque population outside of Europe, and has an entire City Department dedicated to Arts & Culture. Boise is the most geographically isolated of all mid-size cities in the contiguous U.S., which has resulted in a burgeoning creative culture (“because there is no other place to go!”) among other unique qualities.
  • HOMELESSNESS: The homeless population in the Boise region is about half that of Sacramento County on a per capita basis, but these folks were nearly invisible downtown and throughout the trip. The police department aggressively arrests those who sleep outdoors, have open containers, or who commit minor infractions. It is unclear what the continuum of care looks like or how many homeless individuals fill Boise’s jails.
  • EDUCATION: Boise State University has a College of Innovation & Design campus downtown, which is building programming around virtual reality (VR), “pop-up majors,” cooperative education, and new ways to make college affordable in partnership with local credit unions.Students at One Stone School
  • One Stone School in Boise is a tuition-free alternative nonprofit high school that allows students to design their own education. In fact, two-thirds of their Board of Directors are students! Revenue is generated from sponsorships, hosting classes, providing creative services to clients, and other community-facing work that students lead. They have yet to have a graduating class, but are building ad-hoc partnerships with colleges and universities so that students can still be accepted into top-flight schools despite non-standard testing.
  • RURAL-URBAN CONNECTIONS: McCall, Idaho is a 3,000-person mountain town two hours north of Boise that expands to over 10,000 during ski season and peak summer. The town is grappling with a deep housing crisis, with service workers commuting in daily from as far as the Boise suburbs.
Whitewater Park on the Boise River

Boise and McCall should be commended for innovating despite little to no support from the deeply austere State of Idaho. These municipalities are experimenting with creative approaches to financing, public-private partnerships, securing federal grants, and more to bring housing, broadband, skilled workers, and investment to their areas.

I want to thank the El Dorado County and Folsom Chambers of Commerce for putting this trip together and bringing amazing people along. It’s important to leave our region – physically – to learn how other areas are excelling and sometimes failing within their unique circumstances. The community that is built while doing this important work is an added, awesome bonus.

All things considered, the lessons of Idaho will help the Sacramento area become a more livable place. To keep up with Valley Vision’s work to advance livability in our region, subscribe to our Vantage Point email newsletter!

Adrian Rehn is a Valley Vision Project Manager overseeing the Cleaner Air Partnership and Valley Vision’s online communications.

Tesla Model S Makes Meg’s Week

In mid-May I had a birthday. Birthdays aren’t usually something I get all that public about, because it can seem really self-centered, and so I’ve certainly never written a blog about a birthday before. But here’s one! Although it’s not mainly about the birthday itself. It’s mostly about what happened as a result of my birthday: I got to drive a Tesla Model S for an entire week!

If you know me well, you probably know that I have coveted Teslas for years, well before I got to lead Valley Vision’s work in the Clean Economy and was able to get involved with the region’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV) Collaborative. So this birthday gift (from an inspired husband and some teenage co-conspirators) was superlative.

I’d driven a Tesla once, briefly, almost exactly four years earlier, in a ride-and-drive event in Napa. But this was an entire week. So, what did I take away from the experience?

  • It accelerates like a bat out of hell. For someone (me) who was trained as a driver in the assertive New Jersey style of driving, this is a dream come true. The acceleration will truly snap your head back if you want it to. (I demo’d that for CEO Bill Mueller one day; he liked it too!)
  • Auto-pilot is really remarkable, and a harbinger of the autonomous future to come. And it performed exceptionally. I used auto-pilot on surface roads in Davis and Sacramento, on our freeways, on the merge onto the Causeway in rush hour, in the rain (yes, rain), in heavy and variable traffic, and on highway 49 up to Grass Valley one day, as the road transitioned from undivided four-lane to a twistier and hillier two-lane.
  • Auto-pilot can even change lanes on the freeway, which was freaky when I discovered it by accident. I turned on my signal for a lane-change before disengaging auto-pilot as I thought was necessary. Feeling the car begin to change lanes on its own was a little more exciting than I was ready for! But after that first surprise, it was just amazing.
  • It will charge when plugged directly into house power overnight. But it will not charge quickly! We’d gain 30-40 miles in a ~10 hour overnight period. If I ever own a Tesla, of course we’ll install the special home chargers to get close to full overnight recharging.
  • Tesla Superchargers are good. And easy. And free. There’s one in Natomas, which I frequented, and also one in Rocklin that I used on the day I went to Grass Valley.
  • “Range anxiety” is a thing, even with a convenient Supercharger. I usually drive a Prius, with 500+ miles between fueling. The Model S would charge to a 200 mile range, but if one drives or accelerates assertively (ahem), that compromises your total range. I’m sure if I owned the car, I’d get accustomed to driving it closer to “empty,” but the relative scarcity of Superchargers and the slowness of charging on a regular outlet made me conservative and a little twitchy whenever my range fell below 75 miles.
  • If you’d like this same experience for yourself, there’s an app for that, of course. It’s called Turo, and it’s just exactly like Airbnb, except with cars rather than homes. We regretfully returned our lovely Tesla to the home of its owner, in the Pocket, on a Saturday morning.
  • There are more of them out there than even I’d noticed. One afternoon I left the parking garage behind the library in downtown Sacramento, and waited at a light to turn left, with one black Tesla Model S behind me, and a second one in the lane to my right. We were like a little Tesla flock.
  • I’m not the only one who stares (and sometimes points) as a Tesla goes by.

Having meetings in Sacramento, Davis, Grass Valley and places in between, I drive significantly more than some. The Tesla enabled me to do that driving with a clearer personal conscience and in tight alignment with my professional life at Valley Vision – including the Cleaner Air Partnership, focused on air quality and transportation emissions, and the Capital Region Climate Readiness Collaborative, focused on climate and impacts. Keep up with Valley Vision’s leadership in these areas by subscribing to our monthly Cleaner Air News email newsletter!

Meg Arnold is Managing Director of Valley Vision, leading the Clean Economy and Innovation and Entrepreneurship Strategies.

Avenues for Equality: Lessons Learned from the Trailnation Summit

Four flight delay notifications, two layovers, and a red-eye flight later, I found myself walking along Lake Michigan on a sunny Tuesday morning. I was already far too late to make it to the first plenary of the Summit, but I was happy to take the time to chug a quick coffee. A pristine walkway took me along the water, with an immense, lush park on the other side. There wasn’t a person in sight. I was the only one enjoying this view and in that moment, I felt so spoiled – to be in this city, in this park, to appreciate this trail and why I was here.

I attended the TrailNation Summit on June 5th-7th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over 150 participants from across North America shared their passion and motivation for trail-building. Their stories inspired me to reflect upon our approach to the EPIC Trail, a project led by Valley Vision and SACOG to connect the Sacramento region via a 100-mile recreational trail.

Several speakers’ messages stood out to me in their discussions on equitable development and a desire for greater inclusivity, not only in the communities in which we build these trails, but also amongst the populations at the forefront of trail activism. By my estimate, at least 80% of the Summit attendees were white and 70% were over the age of 40. Sterling Stone, Executive Director of Gearin’ Up Bicycles in D.C., made powerful statements about race and equity that seemed so obvious and yet, weren’t mentioned earlier in the conference. How are we trying to engage with the local residents as we move forward with this project? Are we patting ourselves on the back for throwing around words like ‘equitable development’ and ‘implicit bias’ without having the tough discussions around how to help underserved communities?

Mr. Stone told a story of a young black man who was stopped by a cop while riding his bike with his friends on a recreational bike trail. He was neither breaking any laws, nor disturbing the peace.

“That kid didn’t say, ‘oh, that road wasn’t equitably developed for me’. No – he said “that cop was racist.”

We have to face these difficult truths and realize that top down strategies to “connect communities” will only get us so far in this process of advocating for equitable development. “It’s great if you all want to do this work forever, but we need to create a new generation of activists that reflect the communities we work for.”

Try as we might to improve connectivity and inclusiveness in our regions, our work needs to go beyond trail mapping, fundraising strategies, and branding. We could stop at recreation and improved tourism, but is that all we’re trying to accomplish with the EPIC Trail?

We tell people that this trail is for regional connectivity, to promote healthy lifestyles, and to improve quality of life. But for whom? Perhaps we could focus more on the disadvantaged communities in our region that have little access to green space. Or maybe, the rural counties that are often forgotten and have little representation among our regional leadership. What about the lower-income population with little time for recreation between working multiple jobs and caring for their children?

While we have really amazing trail groups like the Friends of El Dorado Trail, the Folsom Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition, and American River Conservancy, our region doesn’t have a unified trail activism group that can meet regularly to improve trail access for these target populations. Many of the inspiring trail groups that I had the honor of meeting in Milwaukee were able to make monumental progress because of their network of other likeminded organizations. Together, they were better able to interact with these persistent community issues at a grassroots level.

It’s with this goal in mind that we continue in our process of fundraising for an alternatives study which will prioritize community engagement and inclusivity. Valley Vision’s purpose is to serve the region and this Summit was a great reminder of the power these trails can have – beyond recreation and connectivity – to making lasting social impacts in our neighborhoods and the Sacramento region at large.

Chloe Pan was Valley Vision’s Executive Assistant to CEO Bill Mueller and Project Lead for the EPIC Trail.

Building Business Resiliency in Wildfire-Risk Communities

Business resiliency is of vital importance to businesses themselves, and to the communities of which they’re a part. Recognizing that, Valley Vision and partner Sierra Business Council recently brought business resiliency workshops to small businesses in two rural communities in the Sierra Nevada, Sonora and Grass Valley. The workshops, funded by a grant from PG&E, are designed to inform and motivate small business owners and leaders to put plans in place for their businesses in the event of wildfire (or other) disasters.

The workshops are based on Valley Vision’s existing Business Resiliency Toolkit, which provides an easy-to-use, step-wise process way for small businesses develop their own business resiliency plan. Throughout, the Toolkit directs business owner/operators to respected existing resources, such as Kaiser’s Hazard Vulnerability Assessment tool, to most effectively get their disaster planning work done.

The resilience of small businesses is increasingly important to communities for several interconnected reasons:

  • First, thirty-years of national data show that natural disasters are increasing in frequency, severity, damage, and unpredictability. And as we saw all too clearly with events in late 2017, the drought and pest damage to our wildlands is resulting in wildfires of greater intensity and ferocity than ever before.
  • Next, research consistently shows that small businesses are the least prepared for, and the least able to recover from, disasters that strike, whether community-based, like a wildfire, or localized, like a building fire. After an event that causes small businesses to close unexpectedly for five days, 40-60% never reopen.
  • Additionally, small businesses contribute the majority of employment and wages in communities across the country. Particularly in more self-contained rural towns, the small business community is the backbone of local economies – so broad-based small business closures can have significant and long-lasting impacts to the economic health of those communities.

For these reasons, and others, Valley Vision and Sierra Business Council teamed up with local chambers of commerce, and PG&E’s financial support, to bring the Disaster-Proof Your Business Workshop to Sonora and Grass Valley.

In a half-day format, small business owner/operators learned from experts about the five steps of the Business Resiliency Toolkit.

  1. Understand Your Risks and Your Environment
  2. Assess Your Readiness
  3. Take Action
  4. Test and Update Your Plan
  5. Engage with Community Resiliency Efforts

Because the Toolkit is designed to help businesses prepare for a disaster of any type, Valley Vision and Sierra Business Council also developed wildfire-specific recommended actions.

For more information about the Toolkit or the Disaster-Proof Your Business workshop, please contact us!

Meg Arnold is Managing Director of Valley Vision, leading the Clean Economy and Innovation and Entrepreneurship Strategies.