”Expand top line revenue to ensure we’re positioned for everything we want for St. Helena.” This is a statement by a candidate for city council as it recently appeared in the St. Helena Star. It follows a disturbing trend towards good-sounding political platitudes without substance. In the current crisis environment, we need specific solutions rather than empty rhetoric from anyone running for office.
We are living in unprecedented times with new virus types spreading globally at an increased rate which makes our monocultural economy extremely vulnerable. The call for diversification has been going on for many decades with no action. It has now become a matter of plain survival. This new reality requires a fundamental rethinking in the structure of our economy.
While we are debating whether this or that hotel in this or that location will save our town’s economy, we are still focusing on old models. We cannot continue putting all our eggs in the tourist basket or any other single basket while ignoring the evidence of how vulnerable such a model is.
I am not suggesting abandoning the tourist model altogether, but we must incorporate it as a part - rather than the driving force - of a diversified economy. If we do not, we will be closing a window of opportunity St. Helena enjoys over Calistoga and Yountville which have already committed the major portion of their infrastructure and resources such as land and water to that industry, which hampers their flexibility to diversify.
The task before us is not easy because we must diversify in ways which are compatible with our small-town character and less dependent on low wage workers as it is now, less demanding on our resources and less impactful on traffic. The health and service sector, specialized education, the arts, symposia, the growing sector of free-lancing, remote working, perhaps light manufacturing may be some good candidates. At the same time, we must find ways to monetize them towards city revenues.
The trend towards internet shopping will continue and will have an impact on most of our current retail landscape, but a properly diversified economy will also transform the retail landscape in ways more compatible to the need of residents than it is now. In addition to tourists, the hotel industry will also be geared towards serving an entirely new type of visitors.
But at the heart of this new economic landscape will be the need for more housing and this is where the preservation of our infrastructure and natural resources becomes an existential factor which we may not squander while it is still available. If nothing else, the current and chronically recurring water rationing makes my point.
This will be a long and arduous process which will require visionary leadership and expertise, but it will not happen without a targeted plan on what to do and in what sequence to do it. But looking into the future, we have no choice but to begin the process right now.
I hope everyone running for office in St. Helena recognizes that we are at fork. We cannot afford to take the turn which ultimately leads to a dead end.
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