In the green economy, there is Jamaica, Amsterdam and Humboldt. Until recently however, America’s tolerance for the five pronged leaf was abysmal, incarcerating more dime bag handlers then drunk drivers and the green (cannabis) economy was a black market, illegal cesspool of activity. When in December of 2017 California became the third state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, certain areas of the state started to take their long-standing cannabis know-how to the next level. Those mostly under-developed, highly rural and well covered areas were thrust into the limelight as the cultivation suppliers of the black market had their chance to build — “by right.” One of these areas were the redwood areas of northern northern California. An often over-looked and hardly mentioned area, only a five hours drive from San Francisco and three hours from Portland, Humboldt County take an ocean side approach to revitalizing itself from it’s shaded past. Once the timber exporting capital of California, nestled right on the cliff-jutting coasts of the Pacific Ocean, Humboldt County — and it’s county seat of Eureka — now have a chance to become the cannabis capital and digital nomad’s dream city of the future.
A few weeks ago, I took one of the three daily direct flights from LAX to ACV, Eureka & the California Redwood Coast airport to go see for myself. Curiosity over the last several months drew me up this way after investigating and having numerous conversations with local officials and business owners about the economic revitalization of the area. Along with the latest legislation that pits Eureka and Humboldt Bay’s surrounding areas as the only coastal Opportunity Zone north of San Francisco, I had heard the natural beauty of the place would make it a marquee destination for those looking to escape the costly living of Seattle and San Francisco. My preliminary investment thesis was simple: Last stretch of California Coast Line with an airport, a major highway infrastructure, a budding new legal industry, historic roots in materials trade, a moderate climate with unique topography, a growing higher education system at HSU and the potential upside of more isolated locations in an autonomous vehicle world. As a student of economics and an employee of a real estate development firm, I knew that in order to make this work, the financials for investment would have to make sense, the community would have to be open for change and the local government would have to open its doors and coffers to the community development approach. With that as my basis, I flew northbound.
An economic development corporation that is young and excited about a progressive Eureka awaited me. After looking at a few county owned sites that would be up for RFP we had a chance to tour the cannabis demarcated area of town. No, these are not slothy drug houses, these are light manufacturing facilities with wage workers that make more per hour then any other local industry worker. These are businesses that are producing and manufacturing products that will be distributed throughout the state — items that proudly don the Humboldt name and look more like an iPhone from their packaging then they do like pharmaceuticals. These companies are growing and they’re gobbling up space by the tens of thousands of square feet. There is not enough space for them to grow in town so they’re taking up huge plots on the periphery for everything from distribution to manufacturing (Pop & Barkley converting an old Kmart into a manufacturing facility). While the county isn’t ecstatic about it’s reputation as the cannabis capital, it certainly doesn’t necessarily shy away from it’s economic benefits. After seeing a few more successful developments and meeting local business regulators, we wrapped up the day by discussing the largest need of Eureka, housing. It was pushed on me often throughout the day, “we need a place for our incoming doctors and nurses, we need more housing for the cannabis employee base, we need more student housing, etc.” It became pretty apparent, the go-forward plan for the downtown core was to build mixed-use to serve the pent up demand from the local employee base.
If the Humboldt name holds the same clout in the cannabis industry as Napa does for wines, we will see a shooting star of renaissance. You can envision a world in the not-so-distant future where people spread further away from the major cities, establish themselves near the limited natural resource line of the pacific ocean and flock toward industries that require highly skilled labor of a different kind. [Imagine] the canna-preneur establishing in the heartland of the green economy, bringing with her the finest and brightest of the Bay Area as strain experts and data scientists flood the area to join this unique employment ecosystem. Alongside these jobs come the periphery services setting up shop in close proximity. Only a short Autonomous ride to the Bay Area in a slick and decked out autonomous hydrobus and you can arrive in the bay area for a meeting and then return back in Eureka for a sunset hike. Afterwards, you can find a thriving revitalized “old town” right on the waterfront, densely packed with new apartment units and a quaint mix of retailers and eateries. Within biking distance along the waterfront path, you can ride right around Humboldt bay and touch the Pacific ocean with your front wheel. This is what a successful opportunity zone should look like decade(s) later — after the right mix of economies, financial feasibility and vision are mixed together.