Community & School Reports
Welcome to Nevada County . . . You're invited to stay.
Nestled in the Sierra foothills of Northern California is Nevada County. Here you can experience our friendly, unhurried pace and a dedication to our extraordinary quality of life. Strategically located west of Lake Tahoe and east of Sacramento, Nevada County is an ideal area to experience a distinct four seasons. The local towns and cities have a distinct flavor all their own. Nevada City and Grass Valley have carefully preserved the historic aspect of their Gold Rush beginnings. Quaint Victorian buildings and homes line the streets, beckoning your imagination to days of yesteryear. In the spring, stop into Penn Valley for the Annual Penn Valley Rodeo. Or how about Rough and Ready for their annual Secession Days and some of the meanest Chili in the West. If you are willing to explore, there are an unlimited amount of things to do and see in the Nevada County.
In January of 1999, an article appeared in Comstock's magazine describing Nevada County and its appeal to everyone. With permission, we have reprinted the article here for you. We hope that as you explore our site further you will find many little tidbits of information. As it happens on the Internet, we tend to go off on tangent links exploring other areas of interest. Our goal is to provide you with that opportunity from our web site. We have focused mainly on local Nevada County and Real Estate links with a few off the wall Web Sites we felt you would enjoy. If you are interested in the daily happenings in Nevada County, get a subscription to the local newspaper, The Union. You can also explore the county from Nevada County's Gold Online Magazine.
Nevada County: A History of Innovation and Creativity
By Russ Steele
Russ Steele is a freelance writer, Nevada County native, Economic Resource Council volunteer and Grass Valley/Nevada County Chamber of Commerce board director.
Innovation and creativity are not new to Nevada County. From the 1849 gold rush to the 1990's rush to embrace digital technology, innovation and creativity have been the hallmarks of business in Nevada County. The Pelton wheels, which powered the gold mines, today power computers in high-tech laboratories, historic lofts and spare bedrooms; creative and productive places, where tomorrow's products are being developed by engineers and entrepreneurs.
Nevada County, which spans the Sierra Nevada range, has only three incorporated communities, yet the region has high name recognition throughout the world. Grass Valley, the regional business center, was listed in Time magazine as one of the best small towns in America. Nevada City, the county seat and cultural center, was featured in The Great Towns of America, a guide to the 100 best getaways for a vacation or a lifetime. And Truckee, a railroad town on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, is growing exponentially as successful California families buy second homes in the area. Perhaps more important, is the global recognition that Grass Valley receives as the home of Tektronix's Grass Valley Products, the former Grass Valley Group.
In the Beginning
Nevada County's first economic engine was hydraulic mining, washing gold from ancient riverbeds with giant water canons called monitors. When rivers started filling with silt, valley farmers flexed their political muscle, shutting down the monitors. The dams and ditches that once fed monitors are the miners' legacy to Nevada County's water for future growth.
When the gold fields closed, miners followed gold-laden quartz veins deep into the granite mantle, creating miles of tunnels under Grass Valley and the surrounding hills. Empire Mine Historical State Park and North Star Mine Museum docents tell tourists that up to 80 percent of the gold is still in the ground. They also point with pride to the Pelton wheels, which paved the way for regional electrification and new revenue. Water that once washed down hillsides now provides hydroelectric power and moisture for thirsty foothill farms and orchards.
The green hills of Nevada County supply lumber for valley homes, organic vegetables, fresh fruit, cattle and wine. Agricultural income increased by 8.9 percent in 1997 overall, with a 10.4 percent increase in timber and 21.7 percent increase in wine grapes. Paul Boch, Nevada County agriculture commissioner, estimates that 'over 200 acres of vineyards are in production, with another 140 acres in development.'
Building a business in rural communities can have some drawbacks, the main one being access to efficient transportation networks. While Nevada County is off the I-80 transportation corridor, it has an excellent communications infrastructure. Pacific Bell maintains two digital switching centers and 30 miles of fiber optic cable. This broadband communications resource links business parks and rural neighborhoods.
Many businesses use the Internet for its global reach to tap new markets. For instance, long-time Grass Valley company Aabruco has doubled its business by selling pie-making machines on the Internet. Technology giant Dell Computer discovered the Nevada County electronic assembly equipment manufacturer Innovative Metals Fabrication (IMF) on the Internet and has since become a major customer. According to Gary Apple, IMF's president, 'Selling on the Internet reduces our sales costs... and allows us to stay in Grass Valley.' Eigen Video, on the other hand, incorporates Internet technology into its medical imaging products to create Intranets for demonstration and training.
Growing their Own
For many years, Grass Valley Group set the standard for video switching equipment around the world. Following major reorganizations, Tektronix Grass Valley Products is struggling to recapture its market leadership with a new line of high definition television (HDTV) switchers and routers. Prospering in the digital television business will be a long-term effort for Nevada County's video cluster, according to David Wood, president of Ensemble Designs. Wood sees problems ahead with too many competing HDTV standards and too few viewers. 'HDTV is a politically mandated technology, and politics and technology do not mix well,' says Wood.
An innovative startup, Telestream, is avoiding the HDTV standards issue by developing a more universal product, 'sending high quality information over a variety of communication networks, including the Internet,' explains Dan Castles, Telestream's president, who resigned from Grass Valley Products in 1996.
Like Telestream, most of Nevada County's high-tech companies are home grown. They started with humble beginnings in garages, spare bedrooms and on 'Litton Hill.' More than 30 local companies trace their heritage to the unfinished hospital Charles Litton Sr. bought in 1954. After selling most of his Bay Area company, Litton moved to Grass Valley, the first of many creative people who came seeking the fabled foothill quality of life. 'A real Howard Hughes, without all the publicity,' says Ron Milner, president, Applied Design Laboratories Inc., a long-time 'Litton Hill' entrepreneur.
Over the years, Litton Hill has become the region's informal business incubator. In 1959, Grass Valley Group's Dr. Hare, an old Stanford college friend of Litton, was lured to the foothills from Connecticut. Cyan Engineering, an Atari research laboratory, set up shop on Litton Hill in 1973. Some engineers chose other options. Silicon Systems, now TDK Systems, and TDK Semiconductor started business in a local strip mall, adopting the resident pizza parlor as the company cafeteria. According to Birney Dayton, president of NVISON, 'Most of the local high-tech companies can trace their roots to one or more of four companies: Litton Engineering, Grass Valley Group, Atari and Silicon Systems.'
Tektronix Grass Valley Products has been a major source of local startups when engineers left to start their own companies, some voluntarily and others due to layoffs. All were reluctant to leave the area. Instead, many opted to team up and start their own companies. Often these fledgling companies move to larger facilities in the Whispering Pines Business Park, or the Gold Flat Road complex as they outgrow the Litton Hill incubator. Three spin-offs still share the Litton Drive address: AJA Video, Alpine Engineering, and Editware.
Today 'Litton Hill' is, once again, the focus of economic development and the new Litton Business Park will come on-line this spring. Whispering Pines Business Park, where 3Com, and National Semiconductor reside, is almost built out. And some visionaries were growing concerned over the lack of available industrial space. 'Different types of businesses have very different needs,' explains Larry Burkhardt, president of the Economic Resource Council. 'We need an inventory of available land to meet those business needs. We are starting to see those needs fulfilled with Litton Hill.'
According to Charlie Litton Jr., Litton Engineering's vice president and CEO, the business park will continue its incubator heritage by pursuing 'R&D companies and engineers looking for a high quality of life and working environment.' Plans include walking trails and an innovative traffic-calming round-about at the entrance.
The Sierra College, Nevada County Campus (NCC), will share western Nevada County's first roundabout. Although it is not needed for traffic control today, the roundabout eliminates the need for view-cluttering stop lights, preserving the area's rural character.
Innovation does not stop at the roundabout, according to Tina Ludutsky-Taylor, NCC's executive dean. "We are actively seeking partnerships with local high schools, city and county government, and businesses," says Ludutsky-Taylor, "to provide the widest range of educational opportunities." Current partnerships include a Grass Valley Fire Station Training Center to be located on the NCC Campus, and the Nevada County Community Leadership Institute. NCCLI is a Grass Valley/Nevada County Chamber of Commerce, United Way, Nevada County Business Association and NCC partnership, developed to strengthen the skills of emerging community leaders. "This is one of the Chamber's most important programs," says Mary Ann Mueller, president, Grass Valley/Nevada County Chamber of Commerce. "We need more community leaders who can deal effectively with complex growth, social and business issues."
Nevada County is growing its own leaders as well. Schools are some of the best in California, with excellent math and reading scores - second only to Marin County. Not resting on their laurels, the Nevada Union Joint High School District is planning to 'increase math rigor and ratchet up standards to ensure all students can learn', said Joseph Boeckx, the new district superintendent. 'Schools are an integral part of our economy. Click here for the Superintendent of Schools office. The new Imaginarium is supported by over 100 volunteers, exhibit builders, sponsors and donors, says Janeille Litton, project director.
|Who Lives Where?|
|Nevada County City/County Population Estimates|
While the business community and the schools are preparing for growth, there are no-growth elements, which place a higher priority on preserving the rural character of neighborhoods, scenic conservation and historical preservation than economic development. In the early 1990s, Nevada County was the fifth-fastest-growing, county in California according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. Even though population growth has slowed, growth versus no-growth was a major issue in the 1998 local elections.
In 1998, declining school enrollment resulted in teacher layoffs, indicating younger families are seeking opportunities outside the county. In contrast, the senior population continues to grow, with 28 to 30 percent of the population over 60 years of age.
These are disturbing trends for business and community leaders seeking a balanced economy. "We need to bring more diversity to Nevada County's ethnic and socioeconomic," said Larry Burkhardt, Economic Resource Council director. "We must have a supply of starter homes to support young families to avoid becoming known exclusively as a retirement community."
|Nevada County Schools Lead the State|
|•||Highly competitive environment - kindergarten through twelfth|
|•||Ten school districts with open enrollment.|
|•||Eighth grade reading, writing and math scores ranked second in state.|
|•||Seven topnotch private schools, increased competition.|
|•||Eleven charter schools, more per capita than any community in the U.S.|
|•||Two comprehensive high schools, Nevada Union and Bear River.|
|•||Seventy-four percent of high school graduates enter higher education.|
|•||Graduates score in the 92nd percentile on Scholastic Aptitude Tests, on average.|
|•||Lowest teen pregnancy rate in the state.|
|•||Dropout rate is 3.5%, one of the lowest in the state.|
|Source: Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office.|
To provide more land for housing, economic development and to reduce the potential for rural sprawl, Grass Valley's forward-thinking leaders are planning three annexations: Loma Rica Ranch, North Star Property and Kenny Ranch. When complete, annexations will add 1,570 acres to Grass Valley, creating 10,000 new jobs by 2025.
The rural character of the area is a great attraction for professionals who have multiple options as to where they live and work. These highly skilled and creative people see Nevada County's quality of life as an economic asset. "This environment appeals to self-starting, entrepreneurial people," says Mike Tomzak, a principal at Sequoia Financial Services, who recently moved to the area. "A remarkably wonderful, unique place to live and raise a family," said Tomzak.
According to Mary Wollesen, director of Sierra College's Small Business Development Center, "home-based businesses are Nevada County's largest economic engine." Wollesen estimates that 'fifty to seventy percent of the homes in Nevada County have some economic activity.' Wollesen admits the numbers are difficult to measure, as few get business licenses. 'Only the FedEx and UPS delivery people really know,' says Wollesen.
Nevada County is also the home of several unique businesses. Furniture by Thurston sells high-quality dormitory furniture to universities, institutions and the military. Farlow Scientific Glass blowing is another company that emerged from the Litton Hill incubator, taking advantage of Litton Engineering's glass working knowledge and skills.
"As one of only five video design centers in the world, it is important to recognize what Nevada County has going for it," says Dan Castle, Telestream's president, speaking at a Nevada County Business Association luncheon.
© JANUARY 1999 - COMSTOCK'S