Skunk Train deal for bluff property could spur Fort Bragg’s remodel

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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.

Georgia-Pacific retains ownership of the remaining 312 acres, an expanse of gridded dirt and asphalt cleared of structures save one: a 60,000-square-foot building known as Dry Shed No. 4.

City and community leaders have been working for years to establish a framework for gradual redevelopment of the property, which is still zoned for lumber production. It has no real roads and lacks infrastructure, including water, sewer service, power lines and fire hydrants.

The City Council has jurisdiction to propose rezoning for the site, subject to final approval by the California Coastal Commission. It has hosted a series of public meetings and a community survey to define areas for particular types of development. As currently envisioned, the plan includes uses that would augment the downtown commercial district, provide for nearly six city blocks of medium- and high-density housing, large areas of industrial zoning, light industry, timber processing and additional open space.

Large areas labeled “urban reserve” would remain undetermined, pending future planning efforts and unanticipated opportunities that could come along.

City officials have been in the final stages of preparing a draft map for submission to the Coastal Commission, with hopes of presenting it early next year, Community Development Director Marie Jones said. The process of review and likely revision could last as long as two years, she and others said.

The joint Sept. 5 meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission marked a critical point in development of the site, when the Mendocino Railway — having spent months negotiating a property purchase in secret — announced it had a roughly 70-acre piece in escrow, with hopes of closing on the land in a month or two, though no date has been stipulated.

City officials agreed, given the news, to make adjustments in the draft zoning map to accommodate the railroad’s vision, though much of it remained the same. City Council members said any extension of the train tracks should be subject to a use permit and specific conditions.

Hart and Pinoli also announced that they had recently opened discussions with fast-growing North Coast Brewing Co., which is located across Main Street from the existing depot.

The brewery had tried repeatedly to buy some of the mill site acreage to expand its production space, a need that could force the company to leave town, according to Doug Moody, senior vice president and co-owner of the 30-year-old brewery.

“We want to keep the brewery in Fort Bragg,” Moody said. “That’s our goal. But at the end of the day, we can’t just stop growing and succeed as a business. So we either have to find a way to expand or completely change our business model. So this was exciting to us, that now maybe we’ve got an opportunity to do something.”

Moody told city officials the brewery, which employs 180 people, would like to hire 90 more workers if expansion onto the mill site and a new production facility pan out.

“I’m feeling hopefully optimistic,” he said last week. “What I’m trying to do is just to keep everybody talking and moving it forward.”

Sierra Railroad Co., parent company of Mendocino Railway acquired the Skunk Train in 2004, two years after the mill closure. The operators have been wondering since what they might do if they could get their hands on some of the neighboring land, Hart said.

The train has been hit by financial setbacks in recent years, primarily related to failures in an aging tunnel about 3 miles outside Fort Bragg. The tunnel has been out of use for several years, preventing travel between Fort Bragg and Willits, though trains still run from each city.

The railway has an application pending for a grant from the state Department of Transportation to cover about half of the tunnel repair, estimated at more than $5 million. But the cost shouldered by the rail company would remain high, raising questions around town about its ability to purchase mill site land.

But Hart said the investment in developable land and in new railroad experiences for customers is the most meaningful way to ensure the train can grow and thrive and take on new debt.

Otherwise, “it just doesn’t make sense to fix that tunnel,” he said.

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