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Finding Isleton: Small city on the Delta has a ragtag plan for rebirth with music and pot

Watch Isleton celebrate Chinese New Year – with lettuce

The town of Isleton holds a Chinese New Year celebration on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 – part of its plan to increase business and tourism to the area by holding more festivals and events.
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The town of Isleton holds a Chinese New Year celebration on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 – part of its plan to increase business and tourism to the area by holding more festivals and events.

A few days before the city’s planned Asian New Year festival, rain was in the forecast and Isleton Chamber of Commerce secretary Jean Yokotobi needed to ask Chuck Hasz a familiar question.

“Can we use your trailer to pick up the stage?” she asked outside the Main Street property Hasz owns. “Second question — can we borrow your tent for the stage?”

Hasz reluctantly obliged. Since he bought the apartment building with retail space 12 years ago, Hasz quickly earned a reputation as a kind of local fixer. Now, he said, “I would do anything for anyone in town.”

Ragtag efforts like these to help the tiny 845-person town continue after years of financial mismanagement and economic decline are nothing new.

But over the last few months, a group of Isleton business owners and city officials — some of whom are new transplants to the river city — have begun a small but steady campaign to turn the town around.

Saturday’s Asian New Year’s festival, complete with taiko drummers and a lion dance, was just the start of growing series of events the city intends to hold to bring more tourists into the historic Delta city from both the Bay Area and the Central Valley.

A Delta Dad Festival will fill the void of Isleton’s previous claim-to-fame, the Isleton Crawdad Festival. (That festival still draws out-of-towners into Isleton each year, who haven’t yet heard that the festival left the city years before.) Local businesses hope an additional festival in September, focused on blues music, will bring in another couple of thousand people.

Two new bar and restaurants have opened in town in the last year and a half, bringing a new lively energy on weekends. Three marijuana businesses, including a dispensary, a grow house and a manufacturing warehouse, are opening on the west edge of Main Street by April.

Long-abandoned homes near Main Street are now filled, and a developer plans to build 10 more. For the first time in years, the city has debt repayment plans and is paying the bills. The Chamber of Commerce plans on running an ambitious $1 million GoFundMe campaign to go toward the planned blues festival and the city.

Isleton is “charming,” said chamber President Sue Tipp. “It’s got structure.”

Now, she and others have to convince the region — and its residents — that it can live up to its potential.

GETTING THE WORD OUT

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Isleton business owners and city officials gathered for lunch at the city’s most recent new restaurant, a pizzeria that opened in December called The Joint — the owner is helping open the marijuana dispensary across street, hence the name.

Their goal was simple: How would they transform their city from one plagued by massive debt and empty storefronts to one that would return Isleton to a state fit for its old moniker, “The Little Paris of the Delta”?

If anyone in Sacramento knows of Isleton, it’s likely because of the Crawdad Festival. The crustacean-themed festival each Father’s Day at its peak would flood its Main Street with 200,000 guests.

About a decade ago the festival went under, and the naming rights were sold. Attempts to restart a similar celebration have come up short. Still, the city remains proud of the event that put it on the map.

“If I walk down the street and ask 20 people, ‘Hey do you know where Isleton is?’ I get blank stares,” George Rehrmann, a demolition contractor who lives in Danville, told his fellow lunch attendees.

“Is there any way to get the word out?” he pleaded.

Isleton’s most recently appointed city manager, Charles Bergson, doesn’t sugarcoat the realities. Bergson, who came out of retirement after having worked in cities including Williams, Malibu and Compton to pick up the part-time city government work, said Isleton’s problems are about as bad as they can get for a city of its size.

“The city took 20, 30 years digging itself into holes, and now the basic thing is stabilizing city hall and keeping it that way,” he said.

Since 2004, city officials have been recalled, have resigned or have simply decided the task of volunteering their time to run a failing city for free wasn’t worth the heartache and stopped running. Turnover was frequent and turbulent — the City Council regularly took illegal votes when failing to meet a quorum.

The city failed to collect taxes from designated assessments, Bergson said. Corners were cut, and debts were quickly accumulating. After dissolving the local police department, the city failed for years to pay its full $202,000 contract with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Financial and governance issues were so severe that the Sacramento County grand jury released its 2008 report early to “call attention” to the plague of problems.

“The investigation encountered reactions ranging from indifference to — in some cases — outright hostility. When the grand jury questioned the indifference, we were presented with a troubling response. A ‘business as usual for Isleton’ reaction was given,” the report read. “Many citizens, elected officials, and city employees seemed to be saying ‘So what? Nothing is going to change.’ ”

The biggest challenge is paying back about $1 million in abused redevelopment agency money — taxes collected by the city in areas to fund economic improvements that frequently went toward paying city employees and other city needs — to the county.

“It’s like they took their college education money and started buying beer and potato chips,” he said.

Combined with a high-interest rate payments for a “terrible” $2 million bond issue the city took out about seven years ago, as well as debts to the Sheriff’s Department and the levee reclamation district, the city has about $1.4 million in debt to pay back.

It’s a massive amount given the size of the city, Bergson said, but he’s quick to stress the city has negotiated repayment plans for all its creditors. He estimates the city will collect $1.5 million in taxes this year and will spend $1.1 million for its budget.

Isleton has eight years to pay off the $350,000 it owes the Sheriff’s Department, but over the last few years residents have complained about the lackluster presence and slow response time of sheriff’s deputies.

“We’re getting multiple complaints that they call and they’re not dispatching anybody, or telling us, ‘We can’t send anyone out unless somebody’s dying,’” City Councilwoman Elizabeth Samano previously told The Bee.

For now, Bergson is working on securing a new $300,000-400,000 contract with the much closer Rio Vista Police Department, though he expects delays given recent allegations of abuse of power and use of force within the department.

A WANT TO ‘STRIVE AND THRIVE’

Iva Walton is trying to shift Isleton’s “business as usual” attitude.

Walton knows she doesn’t look like the stereotypical Isletonian. “I’m a big ol’ dyke,” she said. She has tattoos and wears gauges in her ears. Still, she’s always had a soft spot for the city since her days riding her motorcycle up from Oakland in the late 1980s, where she lived, up along the Delta.

She had dreamed of opening a craft beer room for years, and one afternoon while out on a boat in the Delta, her then-girlfriend said she wanted to move to the quiet river town.

When they realized 35 Main Street was for sale, they knew it would be the perfect home — it had long been her favorite building, and the price was affordable.

“Three years ago last week” they bought the building, she said. “Actually, we drove up to Sacramento, got married then came back down and signed the paperwork.”

In July 2017, she opened up Mei Wah Beer Room, restoring the former Chinese gambling hall and opium den to its extravagant glory. The bar, painted auspicious red and decorated with vintage Chinese-style furniture and memorabilia, has become a local hotspot on the weekends, along with The Joint, owned by Jeremy Petrell.

“Boy, those two have brought a lot to this town,” said Isleton resident Thomas Lee, sitting on a bench along Main Street enjoying the good weather near a recently refurbished Chinese gazebo. “On any given Saturday or Sunday,” he said, Mei Wah, “that place is jamming.”

Walton said that by and large, she has been welcomed by the city and its residents, despite her Bay Area roots. “As long as you treat the people right, it’s been nothing been giving.”

The attitude may be paying off. After having only lived in town about three years, she was elected to the City Council in November, with more votes than any other candidate: 118, or about 22 percent of the vote.

“We’re going to strive and thrive,” Walton said. “I was the first wave to spark some life in it, and there are many waves to come.”

LOCALS ARE SKEPTICAL

Not everyone is as convinced of the recent headway, particularly longtime residents like Jay Silva, the third generation in his family to live in Isleton.

He said he enjoyed the day’s Asian New Year festivities but said new businesses coming in from residents who live out of town don’t fully understand the culture of Isleton. “It’s a sleeping community,” he said, for workers to avoid high prices in cities where they commute to.

Founded in 1874, Isleton quickly became home to hundreds of Chinese laborers and then, after the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, increasingly Japanese laborers and then, during World War II after those residents were taken to internment camps, Filipino and Mexican workers.

In particular, Isleton was home to several asparagus canneries, employing many in the town and being a boon for the city. Long before the Crawdad Festival, the city had the Isleton Asparagus Festival.

Though most of the town’s commercial area burned down in 1926, the facades of the storefronts built to replace the old structures paid homage to its Asian roots, with Chinese characters adorning many of the buildings.

Silva is quick to share his own take on the town’s unique history. “My father used to polish shoes during the cannery season” along Main Street, he said. That’s how busy it used to get. “Are you every going to get that back? No.”

Though he enjoys new establishments such as Mei Wah and The Joint taking root alongside longtime stalwarts such as Peter’s Steakhouse and The Hair Loom salon, Silva said “I don’t care for marijuana” coming into town.

Cindy Burnett, an Oakland resident, recently secured city permits to open her medical marijuana manufacturing business Timeless Palliative Care Collective, encouraged by cheap real estate and a low 2 percent sales tax.

“We were going to open in Alameda County to start the business, but it’s crazy there,” she said. “I didn’t even know what Isleton was, but it was a steal and starting the licensing process a year ago, it was the first (city) that’s displayed leadership and a commitment” to their success.

Bergson said the 2 percent city sales tax, which is lower than other major cities in Northern California such as Oakland or Sacramento, is strategic, an attempt to boost desperately needed revenue. “The council wanted businesses to thrive, and we didn’t want to overburden them,” he said.

Silva said the town’s been burned before by non-Isleton residents making big promises.

“They come from a fast-paced life,” Silva said. “When these people talk, they’re talking because they’re only here for the moment.

“I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go.”

‘A SENSE OF PLACE’

Among the antique stores and gift shops, only a handful of businesses were open along Main Street on a recent Tuesday — The Joint, a laundromat, a convenience store. About half of all storefronts are shuttered, boarded up with paper covering the windows.

Silence is the city’s main soundtrack. Traffic is so rare that one could easily walk the pavement without fear of being hit by a car. At one point, Yokotobi stopped to take a photo of a dog bathing in the sun in the middle of the street.

Isleton knows what it is, Bergson said. “Isleton has a sense of place.”

Change is slow, just like the pace of the city. At Saturday’s Asian New Year’s festival, a tent ended up being a good idea. Crowds were slim, scared off perhaps by the threat of rain. As it began to drizzle, Tipp couldn’t hide her disappointment, as she stepped into Mai Wah to escape the rain and eat lunch.

“Isleton festival flops” would be the headline of the day, joked Eric Chiu, who manages the tiny home village of Park Delta Bay in Isleton.

Despite the disappointing showing, Mei Wah was bustling with locals and visitors. Brian Meitzenheimer and Melina Tovar had driven into town from Vallejo to grab food at Yes My Sweet BBQ & Catering and see the festivities.

They had never heard of the town before being invited, Tovar said, but sitting inside Mei Wah, Meitzenheimer said he was eager to enjoy more of the beers on tap.

Isleton may be small, but it boasts a history and charm that beats their hometown. They said they plan to return.

“There’s only so much you can do in Vallejo,” Tovar said.

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.


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