If one drives north from San Francisco for five hours, the last 100 or so miles of remote, twisting coastal mountain roads provide little company but acres of towering redwoods and the surging Eel River. Then, the road plunges west, toward the shore and the active earthquake zone of Humboldt County.
This part of California is known as the Lost Coast. Arcata and neighboring Eureka are the only major towns of note, spawned during the timber and gold rushes of the 19th century.
Arcata has developed a reputation as a cannabis-friendly zone, with four marijuana dispensaries. The biggest dispensaries, and the only ones that grow their own marijuana, are in the former car dealerships.
Why Arcata's Ford and Chevy dealers went bust is the same old story. Highway 101 expanded and bypassed downtown Arcata, and competing dealerships in neighboring Eureka capitalized. When times got hard, the Sacchi family sold its business to the Chevrolet dealer up the road in McKinleyville, while Isaacson Ford simply folded. Now Harper Motors, a strip of dealerships between Eureka and Arcata, is the only game in town.
But because Arcata is an environmental hot spot, "we've never torn down a building," says Patti Stammer, vice president of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce. That has led to some flexible thinking for what to do with the space occupied by the two former dealerships.
They sat decrepit for a number of years before local real estate developer Danco and a private partnership of investors bought the parcels to try to sublet them. Tenants have come and gone, but the most stable ones have been involved in the marijuana trade.
Danco officials declined to be interviewed. A spokeswoman said that Danco is "merely the landlord."
Alex Stillman, an Arcata city councilwoman and former mayor, says the dealerships used to bring in $60,000 a year in city sales taxes. She is unsure whether the pot dispensaries and other businesses can equal that, although Arcata recently raised its sales tax rate to provide for better roads and more police.
"Most downtowns have a white elephant. ... These dealerships sat empty for years," Stillman says. "It has been hard to make up the difference in tax revenue they generated. But as long as the dispensaries are within ordinances, they are OK."
And that's the rub because even though licensed dispensaries are within the confines of California's Proposition 215, which spells out the state's rules for possession and cultivation of marijuana, federal officials, including those with the Drug Enforcement Agency are keeping watch.
Mariellen Jurkovich, proprietor of the Humboldt Patient Research Center, which is in the site of the former Isaacson Ford, said federal agencies have pressured three banks to shut down her dispensary's bank accounts.
"The scary part about it for the people who own the building is that the federal government can say this is illegal -- even with Prop. 215 -- and seize the building," she said.