Status Check: Isleton Slowly Revives

Signs of progress in tiny city with history of big problems

Back Web Only Apr 25, 2019 By Graham Womack

For the first time in several years, something at least resembling the storied Crawdad Festival of years past is going to be held in Isleton.

The event, which used to draw tens of thousands of visitors and sometimes-raucous revelers each year to Sacramento County’s smallest city, shut down roughly a decade ago after years of mismanagement.

Related: Big Shake-Up in the Delta’s ‘Little Paris’

A revived, scaled-down version of the festival last happened within city limits in 2013, with similar events being held near Isleton — but not technically within the city — for a few years thereafter. “No one would insure us for Isleton,” says Jean Yokotobi, a board member of the Isleton Chamber of Commerce, former organizer of the Cajun & Blues Festival, one of the successors to the Crawdad Festival.

Isleton has faced numerous challenges in recent years, including shortfalls in annual revenue, debt and talk of disincorporation from people such as Yokotobi, one of the city’s proudest boosters. Things have been on the upswing in the past few years, as reported by Comstock’s in September 2018 (“Big Shake-Up in the Delta’s ‘Little Paris,” by Sena Christian).

A new city manager, Charles Bergson, took office in February 2017, and two sales tax measures approved by voters are providing vitally needed funds. A litmus test of sorts for the city’s progress will take place June 15, with the Isleton Summer Fest. The event, which will feature food trucks, live music and a beer garden, will be on Main Street.

It’s part of the broader effort to breathe new life into a quiet, somewhat forgotten town. “We got a lot of businesses coming in town,” Bergoson says. “But we still have our difficulties.”

Unlike other more prosperous cities in the Sacramento region, Isleton operates on a shoestring. Bergson estimates the city’s general fund at between $400,000 and $450,000 and the total budget, which includes restricted funds, at $1.6 million. This leaves a small margin for error and, unfortunately, errors came in droves for years.

A lot has been happening in recent weeks to address these past problems, Bergson says. “I got a half-million dollar grant to upgrade the sewer system,” he says. “That was on a Tuesday. On Thursday, I refinanced the bond [which will save Isleton $300,000], refinancing a real bad bond they got in 2012 at a competitive rate… And then the next day, I got indications of another grant I’m going to get for about $200,000, which I’m not at liberty to say.”

Bergson also is  trying to figure out what to do about police service. Isleton’s police department closed down in 2012. The city contracts with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for services, but Bergson is interested in contracting with another city to get more coverage. “I do get complaints about a lack of visibility of [police vehicles] in town,” says Bergson, who notes that past talks with nearby Rio Vista are on hold  while that city deals with some internal issues unrelated to Isleton.

The upcoming festival will highlight another method Isleton is using to solve its problems: legal cannabis. Yokotobi says three marijuana dispensaries are in the process of opening on Main Street and that one of the marijuana groups in town is helping to put on the festival.

Bergson’s predecessor, Dan Hinrichs, who served four years as city manager after most of the problems had occurred, has mixed emotions about the influx of marijuana. “You know, the problem is the city is so desperate for revenue they’re willing to do that,” Hinrichs says.

Other types of new businesses also have come into town in the past few years. Of the 132 business licenses in town, 18 are for businesses that opened in 2018 and 11 are new this year, according to the city clerk. Some of the recently added businesses, like the Mei Wah Beer Room and Yes My Sweet BBQ & Catering on Main Street, are already going strong.

Additionally, the Plan Isleton revitalization project is underway, with the most recent community meeting in November 2018. These kinds of meetings have taken place before in Isleton — the next step is putting the plans that emerge from them into action.

That said, Yokotobi, who no longer favors disincorporation, is pleased with the state of Isleton these days. “I’m actually pretty encouraged,” Yokotobi says. “But we’ll see when everything’s settled.”

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