Forty years ago, a small business owner in the Eastern Sierra could make a good, middle class living.
Today, that same business owner’s income has been decreased by 50 percent (adjusted for inflation), according to a recent study, meaning most small-business owners struggle to make ends meet every year.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
“Now is the time to plan ahead,” said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council Tuesday, as he gave the Mono County Board of Supervisors a briefing on a Mono/Inyo County economic report.
The reasons for the decline are complex. They include “big picture” factors, such the nationwide trend toward stagnant or declining wages relative to costs of living, and statewide factors such as the loss of the aerospace industry and its well-off employee visitors from Southern California.
But a lot of the decline is self-inflicted and, thus, can be changed.
“Even during the boom times, that number didn’t go up, and we should have seen an increase because during those times, people had more disposable income,” Frisch said. “People were still not capturing that income.”
“The bottom line is that small-business owners have not kept up with the rise of online sales, which are increasing at three times the rate of brick and mortar sales,” he said.
“People complain about it, but it’s here to stay and we have to adapt,” he said.
On that note, the Eastern Sierra has an historic and unique opportunity to improve its economic vitality in the form of Digital 395.
“Rural broadband access is related to a 10 percent increase in retail sales,” Frisch said. “If the county or town invests even more, [for example] in infrastructure that will support the broadband technologies, we have seen as much as 25 percent increases [in retail sales].”
The next, or concurrent, thing the Eastern Sierra needs to do is to effectively support and market its already diverse recreational activities.
“The good news is you have a product that is second to none here,” said Frisch. “I live near the Tahoe Basin and while it’s a beautiful place with a lot of recreational opportunities, we don’t compare to your trails, your climate, or your fishing.
“But there are millions of dollars being invested in the Tahoe Basin right now by large corporations (Vail Resorts, Inc.),” he said. “You are going to have to compete with them. If you don’t sell yourself, you’ll fall far behind.”
He added that the Eastern Sierra also has another unique asset that could draw visitors—its geothermal and other renewable energies. The rise in demand for local agricultural products—such as organically raised beef from the Tri-Valley area, Alpers Trout, and wine from the Chalfant area—is another asset the Eastern Sierra could tap and market more effectively.
Supervisor Hap Hazard, who has been the driving county force behind Digital 395, said he agreed with Frisch on many topics.
“We are losing people everyday who come here and don’t have Internet access in their campgrounds,” he said. He said a planned geothermal visitor center near the current geothermal plant could be a pilot project for showcasing the Eastern Sierra’s abundant renewable energy resources.
These are the kind of things the county should consider, Frisch said. “Making sure buildings are compatible with renewable energy when its available—that’s the kind of supporting role a government can play,” he said.