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Entering the Digital Age at Pastoral Pace

TECHNO TRAVELS / A Family Exploration


MOUNT SHASTA — For the rural counties of Northern California, many of which are still reeling economically from the decline of the logging industry, digital information technologies would seem to offer some major opportunities.

Technology, after all, can render geography irrelevant, tying inaccessible areas more closely to the mainstream economy and culture than had ever been possible before.

That's the theory, anyway. To assess what's actually happening, we went to Siskiyou County, one of the most remote areas of the state. And what we found here indicates that while new technology is having a substantial impact for many individuals, the region as a whole is not yet being altered dramatically by the digital revolution.

California's third-largest county in terms of area, Siskiyou is one of the smallest in terms of population. Sprawling north-south from about 50 miles north of Redding to the Oregon border, the county has just 44,000 residents. Long dependent on the logging industry, the county now suffers an unemployment rate of about 11%, and both the population and the local salaries actually declined last year.

The first hope for reversing the economic decline is clearly tourism. It's growing fast, especially in the southern part of the county, and local business leaders say that's due, in part, to new promotional efforts that are made possible by the Internet.

Mount Shasta's Visitors Bureau has a home page ( that gets about 1,000 hits a day. "We've had a 35% increase in visitors to this area every single month of this year when compared to figures from last year," says Richard Derwingson, president of the Mount Shasta Chamber of Commerce. "The Internet is making people . . . more aware of us."

Diane Strachan, executive director of the Upper Sacramento River Exchange Project, a public information and education center established in the wake of the disastrous 1991 Southern Pacific chemical spill in Dunsmuir, added: "Our Web site [] has been up for just a few months, but we've had a lot of people come who say they saw us on the Web."

Joanne Steele and her husband, who own a hot-air balloon company based in Mount Shasta, put up a Web pagewith a national directory of hot-air balloon companies, a simulation of a hot-air balloon flight, and information about the services they offer.

"Half of the people we flew this year had seen our Web site before they even knew we existed," says Steele, an enthusiastic local proponent of the value of Web advertising.

The natural beauty of the region has also given rise to another kind of industry: that of urban escapees moving in for a quieter kind of life.

"About a third of our buyers are escapees from the city," says Nancy Schneider, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker Mountain Gate Properties in Mount Shasta, who has worked in real estate in the area for 18 years. Schneider says that, more and more, these escapees are telecommuting and traveling to see the clients or associates.

Terry McGhee, director of international security sales for Southwest Microwave Inc. in Tempe, Ariz., is an example of this new breed of escapee. Using a laptop and the Internet, and taking frequent trips, he's able to take his job with him to Siskiyou County.

"Nobody with highly specialized skills should move here unless he can take his job with him," he warns.

The technology infrastructure is, for the most part, up to the task. There are three cellular telephone providers in the region--though the mountains render the service spotty in many areas--and several Internet access providers; Federal Express and UPS will deliver real-world goods.

Susan Brown, one of three partners who direct the Mount Shasta-based Business Resource and Action Center, a small-business assistance center, says such capabilities have contributed to a big increase in the number of people interested in starting businesses over the last year.

"Because our population is small and our average income is on the low side, people in Siskiyou who go into business for themselves need to market outside the county in order to make a decent living," she says. "The Internet really helps them to do that."

The College of the Siskiyous in Weed offers a well-attended class in Web page design, and Brown and herself offers a course on how to make that Web page you've designed effective.

Brown believes it's these small businesses that will provide a workable long-term economic survival strategy for Siskiyou. "We have a couple of big corporate players, including Crystal Geyser, looking at the county as a place to locate a water-bottling company," she says.

"But what if Crystal Geyser comes and in 10 years decides that it's not cost-effective to continue doing business in Siskiyou? We'll have the same problem we did with the timber companies. . . . The way for us to survive economic ups and downs is with the development of an entrepreneurial culture."

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