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Community self-help projects deserve high praise

Through vision, teamwork and well-placed grant funding, two Mother Lode communities are launching projects that will likely reap huge rewards.

In rural West Point, a new program under way is expected to simultaneously create jobs and make the area more safe from wildfire.

And in Angels Camp, city officials and merchants are launching an ambitious effort that ultimately will bring in more visitors who in turn will create more business, more jobs and higher property values.

What they've got going to change their respective status quos:

• In West Point, the nonprofit Chips program has received a $96,500 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that will pay for a chipper, truck, supplies and training for a future wood-chipping crew. A revolving training program, with at least three groups of eight trainees per year, is the goal.

Once trained, the crew supervisors will head out to contract with businesses and property owners needing fire clearing. The program may also provide skilled laborers to the U.S. Forest Service, PG&E and a PG&E subcontractor that keeps trees clear of power lines. Some of the trained people may even use their new-found skills to start their own clearing businesses.

The training is aimed at West Point residents who had worked for local mills which shut down after they were purchased by Sierra Pacific Industries. The timber giant in turn provided some help, namely computer training, to the displaced workers.

"It didn't really work," said Chips program coordinator Virginia Landreth, noting the lack of computer jobs in and around West Point. "Now we're trying to help folks in a devastated part of the county who were basically forgotten to get out of the cycle of unemployment."

That varying organizations supporting the Chips program — from Calaveras County employment services and Blue Mountain Community Renewal Council to the Calaveras Fire Safe Council and the Mi-Wuk Indian Council — are further proof of the community commitment to make this two-prong program a success.

It's this the sort of determination that should inspire other remote communities with few resources to find ways to help their own rather than accept things as they are.

• In Angels Camp, even city merchants are quick to note that tourists coming to Calaveras County have Murphys, wineries, the Jumping Frog Jubilee, Big Trees State Park and assorted high country places on their to-visit list but rarely make a concerted effort to visit Angels proper.

City leaders and the Angels Camp Business Association aim to change that through a $35,000 state Community Development block grant that will allow them to hire a consultant to devise a marketing plan to make the city's historic downtown a tourist destination in and of itself.

Angels Camp City Administrator Tim Shearer has been recommending for years that the city do more to market itself.

"If you say Angels Camp to someone, what comes to mind and how do we enhance that?" he asked.

The answer, some involved hope, will be found by the likes of consultant Roger Brooks, dubbed the "Dr. Phil of Tourism." Brooks promotes such tourism principals as convenience, curb appeal, activities people can walk to and getting both quality and value.

It sounds basic. But the necessary changes and improvements don't happen overnight or without plenty of cooperation between city officials and business owners. Still, more and more cities, including Sonora, are spending ample amounts of time and money on marketing and people-drawing promotions. And they're paying off.

Angels is rich with history and already has one of the most quaint downtowns along the Highway 49 corridor. Thanks to this new effort by city leaders and merchants, it may soon become the tourist magnet it should be.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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