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Index shows area strengths and concerns

TANYA CANINO, Sun News Service

The riches of a region are not just based on how much money it generates, according to the Sierra Wealth Index, a comprehensive study of 12 Sierra counties.

“There are different types of capital that, together, make up the riches of a region,” said Amy Horne, director of research for Sierra Business Council.

Before a group of Tahoe City business people and community leaders recently, Horne explained the results of a year-long study of the Sierra’s economy.

There are three kinds of wealth that residents in the Sierra should value: 1) social or human capital; 2) natural or natural resource capital; and 3) financial capital.

The best investments – either by a private businessman or community – are ones that are founded in all three areas, or at least two.

“You want investments that increase two kinds of capital without diminishing the third,” she said.

Small Mall

The Small Mall in Truckee’s downtown is one example of this because the developer overhauled an old building within the downtown core instead of using vacant open land somewhere else. Staying in downtown helps reduce air pollution from vehicles, boosts the economy of the downtown core and makes the downtown area more attractive to shoppers.

Tahoe City sidewalks

The Tahoe City sidewalk project is another example of a project that is going to boost the social capital of the community by making Tahoe City a nicer place to be.

Making communities a better place to live is integral to the Sierra Wealth Index because quality of life is one of the region’s best assets.

In the past, rural areas were attractive to businesses because there was a cheaper labor pool, but with the global economy providing inexpensive labor throughout the world, rural areas must have other attractions for businesses.

“The advantage in rural areas now is quality of life,” Horne said.

Within the Sierra Wealth Index, the Sierra Business Council identifies some of those quality of life factors, such as school class sizes, student to computer ratio, children living in poverty, teen-age pregnancy, adult literacy, violent crime, risk of heart disease and more.

Nevada County

In Nevada County, those factors are mixed, according to the Sierra Wealth Index.

– Adult literacy is among the highest in the Sierra Nevada.

– High school performance on the SAT is one of the highest in the Sierra Nevada.

– Residents are healthy. The risk of dying from heart disease is two-thirds the California average.

– Unemployment declined from an annual average of eight percent in 1993 to fiver percent in 1998, remaining lower than the California rate.

– Economic diversity is high; maintaining this diversity will limit the economy’s vulnerability to disruption.

– Two towns will have DSL high speed Internet access by the end of 1999.

Areas of concern, according to the report, include:

– At 13:1, the ratio of income for the top 20 percent of households to the bottom 20 percent is among the most unequal in the Sierra Nevada, although it is more equal that the California ratio of 14:1.

– Housing is less affordable than the California average for homeowners earning less than $26,000 per year and renters earning $26,000 to $45,000 per year (in 1997 dollars).

– Local hospital capacity is limited, with 730 people for each hospital bed compared to 278 people per bed in California.

– The suicide rate averaged one and a half times the California average between 1989 and 1997.

– Nine habitat types – from valley-foothill riparian to blue oak woodland and cropland, are almost entirely unprotected from conversion to other uses.

– The fire hazard is rated either “very high” or “high” in 62 percent of the county.

– Air pollution is high; 1995 daily PM-10 emissions were the highest in the Sierra Nevada at 36 pounds per square mile and daily nitrous oxide emissions ranked second at 23 pounds per square mile.

– Local wages declined from 54 percent of personal income in 1970 to 43 percent in 1996 and commute wages grew from four percent to 11 percent of personal income.

For the county’s natural resources, public land defines much of the county, because there is so much open space. However, in the foothills area, agricultural land is being lost.

Horne said the Sierra Nevada has not been left behind in the “largest expansion of the U.S. economy in U.S. history.”

Unemployment rates are down and the north-central area of the Sierra Nevada, including Placer County and Nevada County, are in the upper third of the counties for economic diversity.

Areas of concern include a higher percentage of construction jobs which are subject to a cyclical nature and a higher percentage of jobs in the low wage service sector.

The lack of high wage jobs is not linked just to the tourism of North Tahoe; low wage retail jobs in the foothills are prevalent, Horne said.

Overall, the Sierra Nevada has improved economy prospects, diminishing natural resources and the current prosperity hasn’t reached everyone, she said.

The Sierra Nevada Wealth index, first compiled in 1996, and updated in 1999, tracks trends that will help communities focus in on their needs and help businesses set goals and plans.

The wealth index can give a prospective employer information about whether he or she might want to relocate a business into this region, according Ron McIntyre, who was on the Sierra Nevada Wealth Index Advisory Committee.

McIntyre served on the committee as the representative of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.

“I think it only helps us on a regionwide basis, not specifically for the North Shore,” said McIntyre.


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