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Old lumber town balks at independence

Scotia, Calif.'s latest owner, a hedge fund, is preparing to unload the town and is giving the 800 residents a choice between taking it over themselves or seeing it sold. But residents are used to not running the place.

June 24, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Undated historical photo of employees of Pacific Lumber Co. in Scotia, Calif. Residents of Scotia, built by the company in the 1880s, will vote in August on whether to take over running the town or allow it to be sold off.
Undated historical photo of employees of Pacific Lumber Co. in Scotia,… (none, Town of Scotia Co. )

Reporting from Scotia, Calif. — The Wall Street investors who own the last company town in California want to return it to the people.

Many of the people don't want it back. They like Scotia just fine the way it is — a North Coast paradise of pastel saltbox homes and lush lawns, where the company keeps everything spick-and-span and residents don't have to worry about budget deficits and zoning spats.

"People who live in town aren't political. They don't know about planning commissions and all that malarkey," said Mel Berti, who has tended the meat counter at the local grocery for 35 years. With independence, he said, "Who the heck knows what's going to happen?"

Photos: Scotia at a crossroads

Scotia, 30 miles south of Eureka, was built in the 1880s by Pacific Lumber Co. to house the lumberjacks and mill workers who harvested the thick forests of this isolated region.

The town was named for the Nova Scotians who came here for work, and who reported for duty on the lumber company's whistle, bought groceries at the lumber company's store and lived in the lumber company's houses.

But the tree-cutting business, shrinking for decades, finally tanked as the housing boom petered out, and Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy protection in 2007. Its largest creditor, a hedge fund called Marathon Asset Management, obtained the town in bankruptcy proceedings.

Now, Marathon is preparing to unload Scotia and is giving the 800 residents a choice between taking the place over themselves or seeing it sold to the highest bidder.

On Aug. 30, voters will decide whether they want Scotia to become an independent community services district within Humboldt County. On the same ballot, they'll be asked to choose five board members to run the area. A majority "yes" vote is needed for Marathon to subdivide the 300-acre town and sell it off in parcels, and to ensure that there is a government to oversee sewage, fire protection and other public services.

If the nays prevail, Marathon says it will sell the town lock, stock and barrel, since Scotia cannot be subdivided without a governing body in place. Company executives say Scotia then could wind up in the hands of a movie studio, a religious sect or the developer of a retirement community.

If the entire town is sold, Scotians probably would have to leave the community where many of their families have lived for generations — especially if the collection of old, outdated homes doesn't fit into the new owners' plans.

That residents could balk at independence might seem surprising in light of the history of the company towns built near coal mines, textile mills and steel factories a century or more ago.

In that era, "company town" often meant corporate tyranny. Employees and their families were quartered in cheap company housing and were typically paid in scrip that could be redeemed only at the overpriced company store. At its worst, the system resembled medieval serfdom.

The labor movement and the automobile helped end many of the estimated 2,500 company towns across America. Some were abandoned, but many evolved into cities of their own.

Lowell, Mass., became a commuter suburb. Hershey, Pa., boasts an amusement park for chocolate lovers. Port Gamble, Wash., a timber town like Scotia, became a tourist destination.

William Stephens, 68, thinks Scotia can have the same happy fate. Stephens, a nurse practitioner who is a candidate for the board of the community services district, envisions a new, better Scotia, with a gas station and bike trails.

"I have zillions of ideas," he said. "This town has some real potential."

Pacific Lumber started converting Scotia into a community services district in 2003. It's taken eight years to jump through the necessary hoops, and all that remains now is the vote.

For many Scotians, the case for taking a private town public is no slam-dunk.

"It's going to change too much," said Jason Calkins, 21, who has lived in Scotia his whole life. His father — who claims to be the last baby born at the Scotia hospital — was once a lumber grader, evaluating the quality of the redwood logs that came through the mill.

Calkins' life in Scotia is simple now: It takes him just 30 seconds to walk from the blue gingerbread house he shares with his fiancee, Brandy Green, to the hardware store where he works, but he's not sure he wants to stick around.

It's not just the prospect of a takeover by a religious sect or movie studio that worries residents. It's the inescapable reality that there will no longer be a benefactor presiding over the town, keeping the workers happy and the ruffians out.

"They're going to let just anybody in," said Green, 19. "It used to be you could only get in if you know someone."

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