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ON CALIFORNIA / PETER H. KING

On Tilting at Golden Arches

March 31, 1993|PETER H. KING

FT. BRAGG — The official minutes of the March 10 meeting of the Ft. Bragg Planning Commission run for 11 single-spaced pages, which may be a local record. Most of the five-hour session was consumed by a single agenda item, a proposal to build a McDonald's on the southern edge of town. Testimony from 18 witnesses is summarized. All but one--a McDonald's representative from regional headquarters in San Jose--spoke in opposition, and their rhetorical sweep is breathtaking to behold.

There was, the minutes show, worried discussion of ingress and egress, of water waste, low wages and cancer rates, of depleted rain forests and urban sprawl, of corporate America, gridlock, juvenile delinquency, tourism and the need for alternative protein sources and a monorail--to mention but a few of the points raised.

When it was over, the commission voted 3 to 2 to reject the proposal, listing among eight findings that the fast-food franchise would "cause a substantial adverse effect on human beings, either directly or indirectly." The McDonald's representative, who had spent nearly three years pursuing the project, scooped up her papers and without comment marched out of the hearing room, stopping outside just long enough to tell reporters:

"I don't know if I ever want to mess with this town again."

*

Ft. Bragg (population 6,500) is located on the North Coast of California, eight miles from the resort village of Mendocino, capital of warm goat cheese and all things quaint. Ft. Bragg is nothing like its southern neighbor. It is a real, working, blue-collar town, with a Taco Bell, a Burger King, a giant lumber mill and a fleet of fishing boats that operate out of Noyo Harbor. Although Ft. Bragg has plenty of history and 19th-Century architecture, its principal tourist attraction at present is a logging train that carries visitors into the redwood forest--the Skunk Train.

And so, at first blush, this seems an unlikely place to draw a line in the asphalt against the march of McDonald's. Talking to townsfolk and reading through protest letters sent to the Planning Department, it becomes clear that the uprising involves something more complicated than a question of one more fast-food joint.

For starters, what Ft. Bragg calls Main Street the rest of the state knows as California 1, and traffic on the two-lane already is treacherous. Ft. Bragg boosters resent a North Coast perception that this is where, as one city official put it, "you put everything scabby." Like landfills. Or fast food. Also, with timber and fishing uncertain, Ft. Bragg has cast a jealous eye toward Mendocino's tourist trade, and to some people the McDonald's project seemed at cross-purposes with this push. And due to the recession, restaurants here are hurting already--without competition from Big Mac. This economic argument sharpened considerably when the city proposed, in effect, to cover part of the franchise's start-up fees.

Finally, Ft. Bragg is situated in a part of Northern California where many people believe civilization, as we know it, is a mess. "A lot of people came here from Los Angeles or places like that," said one resident, "and McDonald's represents everything they are trying to escape." Correspondents to the Planning Department expressed fear of becoming "yet another ho-hum small town" or "everywhere-else-USA." Some took the sociology even further: "'McD's will only play LOW WAGES AND KEEP PEOPLE DOWN," wrote one of the more passionate protesters. "THE RICH RICHER AND THE POOR POORER. WHY? So kids can GET ANOTHER PLASTIC PIECE OF LANDFILL with their burgers & fries--Pretty damn pathetic, I'd say."

*

Where these complainants were 10 years ago, when Burger King came to Ft. Bragg, no one seems to know. The city's planning director, who recommended approval of the McDonald's, suspects that a vocal minority swayed the commission. He and others believe that most residents, particularly high school kids, would welcome a McDonald's. A company official said the residents simply "didn't know the facts."

Much of the criticism does seem unfair, or at least excessive. Nonetheless, the revolt is, in a way, understandable. As much as anything, the Ft. Bragg attack on Big Mac can be seen as a cry in the strip-mall wilderness, a protest against not simply growth but a style of growth that threatens to remake California into one big, unbroken Everyland.

Civilization, however, can rest easy. McDonald's has appealed to the Ft. Bragg City Council, and most people here figure that the project eventually will be approved. Opponents are philosophical about this. They see the fight as a tuneup for larger battles. There's talk that K mart wants to come to town.

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