Skunk Train deal for bluff property could spur Fort Bragg’s remodel
Plans by the owners of Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train to buy a chunk of coastal land that once was part of the sprawling Georgia-Pacific lumber mill have injected new energy into long-running conversations about the future of the vacant site and the economic potential it represents.
Mendocino Railway President Chris Hart announced earlier this month that his company was in contract to purchase about 70 acres at the northernmost end of the 419-acre mill site adjacent to the downtown train depot. He and his partners hope to extend the tourist railroad west to the headlands and then north along a half-mile of coastline.
A completed sale would give Hart and his partners substantial control over new development expected to reshape and revitalize the historic lumber town of 7,300 people.
A high-end hotel, commercial projects, a public plaza and substantial new housing construction are just part of the vision, along with new production facilities for Fort Bragg’s fast-growing North Coast Brewing Co., Hart and Skunk Train Vice President Robert Pinoli, said.
“I’m incredibly excited,” said Hart, who spent his early career working as a municipal redevelopment consultant and analyst. “To me this whole project has been in my comfort zone, and it’s a source of passion, too. It’s been something where I really care about making unique destinations that work and pull together resources.”
The 133-year history of the Skunk Train already is closely intertwined with the mill site.
It was built as a logging railroad in 1885, when the North Coast was covered by old-growth redwood forest. It remained in control of successive lumber companies for 102 years, hauling logs and supplies across the mill site until the tracks were removed, Pinoli said.
Now it carries more than 60,000 passengers a year on forest excursions that depart from Fort Bragg and inland Willits, Pinoli said, serving as the single largest tourist attraction in Mendocino County, and drawing visitors to coastal motels and restaurants that drive the region’s economy.
Bringing the railroad back to the mill site would only elevate the Skunk Train experience, he and Hart said.
“If you can see the redwoods and whales on the same trip, people would come from all over for that type of trip, and that has benefit to the whole community,” Hart said.
City officials have largely welcomed the railway’s involvement, despite some reservations about the tracks’ alignment and the owners’ desire to build a depot of some kind at the coastal terminus. Though there remain uncertainties about the completion of sale and land-use approvals, the plan elevates what so far has been a hypothetical exercise, with the city trying to create opportunities that would appeal to someone with the vision and means to develop the site, Mayor Lindy Peters said.
“It’s a good thing,” City Councilman Dave Turner said. “We’ve been waiting a long time to get things happening out there.”
The stakes are high. The mill site accounts for a third of the city’s total area and includes virtually all of its oceanfront property, extending approximately three miles along rugged, rocky shores. If offers capacity for growth in a struggling city with the same population it’s had for decades and a median household income of $37,250.
Lumber dominated the economy for most of the past century and a half, with the mill providing more than 2,000 jobs by the 1980s, when it was under Georgia-Pacific ownership. The mill also supported other timber-related interests.
The mill closed in 2002 amid waning fortunes throughout the timber industry, dealing an enormous blow to a region where the other economic mainstay, commercial fishing, has been in decline.
The land, however, represented a unique opportunity for large-scale, planned redevelopment to fuel the economy and provide badly needed housing, local coastal access and attractions for a growing tourism industry.
There have been obstacles, including areas of toxic contamination and protected Native American cultural sites. Most of the contamination has been addressed, though an 8-acre mill pond at the center of the site remains unresolved.
The city has locked up most of the coastal property between Glass Beach and MacKerricher State Park on the north and the Noyo River on the south, acquiring 107 acres since 2009 and creating a band of parkland and a bluff trail that allow for public access to the city’s coastline for the first time in modern history.
It has reserved 11 acres for development of a research and educational facility near Soldier Point called the Noyo Center for Marine Science. Design work and fundraising are under way.