Online extra: Political Notes:
Gays gain say over
Russian River redevelopment
by Matthew S. Bajko
The LGBT community has gained direct say over how monies earmarked for redevelopment in and marketing of the Russian River gay resort area will be appropriated.
Two gay men took their seats Thursday, February 18 on a citizen advisory panel to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors after winning election to the posts last December. It is believed to be the first time that out LGBT people have served on what is known as the Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee.
Guerneville interior designer and art gallery owner Elio "Buck" Sierra ran unopposed for a residential business owner designated seat on the panel. Rio Nido resident Chris Auzston was the top vote-getter among three candidates for two residential tenant designated seats.
Two other gay candidates ran but lost in the election. Sierra's husband, Rex Good, ran for a property owner designated seat on the panel but came up short. And Dawn Robinson-Warner, an out lesbian who grew up in the resort town and lives in Guerneville, came in last among the residential tenant candidates.
Auzston and Sierra will both serve four-year terms, and this year alone, help dole out $3.9 million in redevelopment funds. They both want to make sure that the LGBT community benefits from the public largess.
"We hope to be able to fund some kind of economic development to attract the gay and lesbian community back to the Russian River," said Auzston. "There seems to be this great exodus of everybody going to Palm Springs or wherever they are going. The Russian River used to be the place to party. With the economy being the way it is, it is really being felt here; there are a lot of empty storefronts. They didn't even have Lazy Bear this year."
Sierra said he and his partner, who co-own Nexus Organic Design and Gallery, wanted to became involved in the oversight panel in order to see that the redevelopment money is used to reinvigorate Guerneville's business district and revive its cachet among LGBT tourists.
"I thought I had some really great design ideas for the area and I wanted to participate and throw my ideas into the brainstorming process," said Sierra, 43, who used to live in Contra Costa County and moved to the Russian River area two years ago. "We also felt Guerneville used to be a major gay tourist hub and it has lost a lot of its numbers from the gay and lesbian community. I want to make sure we are part of the movement to revitalize that and make it a major destination again for weekends, not just big events like Lazy Bear."
The Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee – called "the rock" by locals – has nine members total, three each representing business owners, property owners, and tenants. It is overseen by staffers from the Sonoma County Community Redevelopment Agency and advises the elected supervisors, none of whom are LGBT.
"They cannot approve a project without our okay and we can't approve a project without theirs," explained Auzston of the role the citizen body plays.
Projects funded range from sewer and water system upgrades and flood zone projects to business facade upgrades and marketing of the area. The money comes from a special tax district in the area and the citizens' panel was created in 2000.
"It borrows money and invests in the area and is reimbursed in a certain amount of local property tax," explained Cas Ellena, the redevelopment manager for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.
Sierra said redevelopment money has already been allocated to help revitalize Main Street in Guerneville. The local chamber of commerce, which has many LGBT members, received money to buy planters, banners, and nighttime lighting for the business district.
"The planters are in a greenhouse right now and as soon as March 17 or so they will go up. The banners will go up at same time," said Sierra. "It is meant to welcome the summer season here."
At its meeting last week the panel approved setting aside $750,000 for businesses to tap into to upgrade their facades. The supervisors are expected to vote on the proposal next month; if approved then forgivable loans of up to $15,000 or low-interest loans of $100,000 could be available by the spring.
"The hope is the money will be available in April before the summer season so a lot of storefronts can get a little makeover and really spruce up the area," said Sierra.
Next on the agenda is funding a marketing plan for the area to draw in more visitors, whether daytrippers or vacationers. Sierra and Auzston would both like to see an LGBT component be included in any marketing plan.
"It is a no-brainer. I always wonder why there is not a billboard in the Castro anymore reminding the LGBT community we are here," said Sierra. "People get so busy in the city that they forget we are a wonderful getaway just an hour and a half away."
Auzston, 57, and his husband, Jack Brady, used to be frequent visitors to the area when they first met 12 years ago this March outside the Sausage Factory in the Castro. The men, who are both HIV-positive and disabled, found themselves priced out of the city and opted to head north eight years ago to the forested communities along the famed Russian River.
"We wanted to move out of the city; we couldn't afford to live there," said Auzston. "We both had come up here over the years partying. We had grown attached to it."
They found a two-bedroom to rent from a lesbian couple a short drive northeast of Guerneville, the heart of the gay resort area. At a dinner party last year friends suggested that Auzston run for the oversight panel.
"I did and somehow got elected," marveled Auzston, who spent $5,000 of his own money on the race. "No one knew who I was. We had lived up here in basically total anonymity for eight years. I had to run a very vocal campaign. I put ads in the paper and posters up."
Auzston's main goal is to inform other residents in the area about the panel and the funds available. He said it appears only a small group of people have been taking advantage of the redevelopment funds.
"I want to build some consensus and some kind of communication between the rock and the general public. If they don't know what we do then they don't know how to use rock funds to their advantage," he said. "Right now we have our pigs to the trough; the same people with the same projects over and over are coming back. That we want to change; we want to make this available to everyone."
Sierra stressed that LGBT entrepreneurs can apply for redevelopment funds to help them renovate vacant storefronts and open new businesses in the area.
"It is a wonderful aid to new small businesses to come in and get a lot of financial incentives. We are always looking for more nice restaurants and gay and lesbian interest kind of shops," he said. "We really want to bring the numbers of gay and lesbian tourists and visitors back up to what it used to be. We are hoping to have a really good summer."
Gay man wins seat on Solano Dem club
The Most Reverend Lou A. Bordisso, the openly gay auxiliary bishop of the American Catholic Church-Diocese of California, has been elected first vice president of the United Democrats of Southern Solano County.
Bordisso, who lives on Mare Island in Vallejo, won his bid for the post at the club's February 4 meeting. The political club is open to all registered Democrats in Solano County and works to elect Democrats to local, state, and national offices in the North Bay region.
Bordisso, a licensed marriage and family therapist, has long yearned to win political office, having run unsuccessfully for both Vallejo city council and school board in recent years. He recently helped organize protests against Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis after he made anti-gay remarks to a New York Times columnist.
For more info on the Solana club, visit www.solanodems.com/ud.html.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.