Thanks to a $5,000 grant, the Garberville-Redway Area Chamber of Commerce will soon initiate a feasibility study to determine the costs and benefits of hiring private security officers to walk the streets of Garberville.
The funds from a grant sponsored jointly by the McLean Foundation, the Humboldt Area Foundation, and the Headwaters Fund are being used to hire a consultant to prepare the feasibility study.
"We heard the cries of business owners," said Chamber director Dee Way. Local merchants have often complained that the presence of homeless and transient persons on the streets of Garberville and Redway, especially during the months when peak tourist season coincides with marijuana harvest season, is causing them to lose business.
Both Way and individual business owners have heard complaints from visitors who are uncomfortable or even afraid to walk through town. Incidents of harassment and aggressive panhandling have been reported, but just as important is the perception that the streets are unsafe, Way pointed out.
"If people don't feel safe, they won't shop," she said. "Visitors don't stay long enough to discover what Southern Humboldt has to offer."
Even some community members have told Way that they are driving to Fortuna or Eureka to shop because they feel uncomfortable here, she said.
As a lifetime resident of SoHum and the mother of three young children, Way noted that businesses support schools and other community services by donating to raffles and fundraisers. "Whenever you buy a raffle ticket, one of the prizes is always a night at the Benbow Inn or dinner at Cecil's," she said.
Suzanne Dockal, a financial strategist and project management consultant, was hired to do the feasibility study. "We want to do this right," Way explained. "We want to know where we stand before we start."
Dockal will begin by meeting with chamber members and then holding a public workshop in late January or early February. With information gathered from these meetings, Dockal will design a survey to be distributed to local business owners.
Although the details depend on the results of the feasibility study, Way envisions having a security person on the street to augment the sheriff's deputies. She emphasized that local business owners greatly appreciate all the help given by sheriff's deputies, especially the foot patrols.
But because of budget cuts, the sheriff's department is "running on empty," Way said, and they are not able to provide enough deputies to cover everything needed in Southern Humboldt
The feasibility study will help the chamber decide on the level of enforcement authority to give to the security service, but its main role will be "informational, reminding people that it's not OK to have dogs off leash and it's not OK to smoke marijuana on the street.... to show respect for the town," Way explained.
The feasibility study will determine what level of support business owners are willing and able to contribute toward the security service, as well as researching issues like insurance and liability.
Costs of the program will be paid by voluntary contributions from business owners in an arrangement similar to the Garberville Merchants Guild.
The Merchants Guild is an association of business owners, umbrellaed by the chamber, which makes monthly payments toward the cost of keeping the streets in the business district clean.
"People donate based on what they see getting done," Way said.