CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Smoke spiraling skyward from towering piles of burning trees is a joyous sight to most of the 18,500 residents of Del Norte County in California's northwest corner.
The burning timber marks the clearing of land for construction of a $232.6-million maximum security state prison seven miles north of this small coastal town.
"The prison is a Godsend," said Kathy Catton, executive director of the Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce, in a sentiment echoed throughout the area. "It will get this county, one of the poorest in the state, back on its feet after seven years of hard times,"
At the 430-acre prison site, heavy equipment is knocking down trees and ripping apart about 3,000 giant redwood stumps, relics of a 1,500- to 2,000-year-old forest leveled in timber operations 85 years ago.
Some Timber Salvaged
Second- and third-growth trees are being salvaged for boards but most of the timber at the site has little commercial value and is burned as the land is cleared to make way for 40 buildings in the prison complex.
Plans are for the first of as many as 4,000 inmates to move in by the spring of 1989. During the height of construction, 500 workers will be employed on the project. When it is completed, 1,600 workers will be employed full time at the institution.
Already 30 residents of the county have gone through the Corrections Department's training academy in anticipation of working at the prison.
Only about 5,000 residents of the county have jobs and about 3,000--or one in six people in the county--receive food stamps.
Del Norte County in the 1970s had a population of 24,000. It was booming with a healthy timber industry. But the timber business has been disastrous in recent years.
Lots of Empty Stores
"The woods have virtually shut down," said Richard Carter, 65, owner of Sunshine Cleaners. "Mills have closed. People have moved away. This town is filled with empty stores."
But a recent front page story in Crescent City's twice-weekly newspaper, The Triplicate, suggested that the bad days may be over. The article, headlined "Land Rush Picks Up in Del Norte County" reported that the county Planning Department has received applications from developers within the last few weeks for construction of 331 new homes and apartments.
"The boom has started," predicted Gerald D. (Jerry) Cochran, 45, county assessor for 17 years and a vocal supporter of the prison.
According to Cochran, the average yearly income in the county is $12,217. "We rank 56th out of the (state's) 58 counties. Correctional officers right out of the academy earn $25,000 a year. Once the prison opens, we will no longer be one of the poorest counties in the state."
Despite the prospects of an economic upturn, not everyone here is happy that many of California's most hardened criminals will call Crescent City home.
Time for Dark Humor
This sentiment shows up in a joke making the rounds here: "Always leave your keys, a change of clothes and a few dollars in your unlocked car to make it easy for escaped prisoners to make a quick getaway."
"Crescent City will be full of prison guards and prison staff," said Nancy Zeck, 35, a secretary and lifelong resident of Crescent City, the county seat. "Prisoner families wanting to be near their convict relatives will move up here. Why don't they put the prison down south with all that concrete instead of in this isolated, quiet, peaceful place?"
Opponents have formed a group called Concerned Citizens of Del Norte County, which claims 500 supporters.
"A lot of us believe the prison will add to the county's problems, not solve them," said Albert C. Jones, 65, a retired Rockwell International engineer who is vice chairman of the citizen group. "The prison's liquid and solid waste facilities will have an impact on the wild and scenic Smith River. The majority of workers will not be from this area but from all over the state. . . . The prison will be the dominant industry in this county. Is that what this county really wants?"
He argued that many retired couples will sell their places and move elsewhere.
Brushes Aside Fears
But in the tiny town of Fort Dick, population 500, that adjoins the prison site, Dawn Eller, 50, owner of the Fort Dick Market with her husband Clyde, 52, brushed aside fears of living down the street from maximum security convicts:
"This is redneck country. No self-respecting convict would try to get out. They'd be pounding on the door to get back in when they encountered people around here with their pickup trucks, dogs and guns."
The Ellers are doubling the size of their store in anticipation of the boom created by the prison.
This is how Fred Littleton, 57, bartender at the Harbor View puts it: "A prison isn't the most desirable thing in the world, but it is the most desirable thing available. It gives us enough economic base to give our kids a chance if they want to stay."