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Meet a champion for recovery of North Bay homes, jobs, community after the fires

October’s wildfire fires did not take Jennifer Gray Thompson’s home, nor did it cause her to “run for my life barefoot on fire-covered roads.” But it altered her life, she says.

Working for Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin (who did lose her home) at the time, Thompson said, “I learned I could work for 18 hours, sleep for four hours, and be with my family for two hours — and do this for nine days straight without cracking wide open.”

Her role now is to be deeply embedded in the recovery of the area from the fires. She is executive director of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation. She calls the group, the “Third Responder, meaning we are designed to be most active six months to 10 years post-disaster.”

Its role is to “rebuild better, safer, greener, faster.” It is founded by Darius Anderson, CEO of Kenwood Investments and managing partner in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Index-Tribune, the Argus Courier, Press Democrat and the North Bay Business Journal. The organization has an honorary board of directors, led by Congressman Mike Thompson, supported by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rep. Jared Huffman, and with invitations to elected officials from four county region to join.

It is not only in the process of creating an advisory board with representative leaders from several sectors, across the region but a website called “Rebuild Northbay Connect.” Envisioned as a resource for the rebuilding efforts. it could be a mechanism to survey and gather data about the rebuild or pool resources to get discounts on rebuilding supplies, she suggests.

“We want to begin always with the question that was so effective during the actual fires: ‘What do you need and how can we help?’ when approaching the rebuild.”

North Bay Business Journal asked Thompson about the organization’s role in coordinating the rebuild.

Many people might think that the task is only to rebuild the lost homes and businesses. Are they correct?

THOMPSON: They are not wrong, but not quite correct either. There has to be vision here. We had issues with housing stock, both rental and ownership, prior to the fires. We had issues with people leaving the area because it is so expensive and yet other areas, like Lake County, have challenges with maintaining skilled populations due to stalled economic development compounded by fire events over the past few years.

The task is actually to not only address the immediate rebuild but also address our preexisting conditions. And to do so in a way that allows us to restore our region, but more importantly, to leap ahead into a new regional reality where we’ve taken a tragic event and turned it into a revolution of spirit and resilient community design.

We need to think about the interim period between rebuilding and rebuilt. What do we want our region to look like in 10 years? How will we support our business owners and our workforce? How will our housing stock be regarded?

We have the opportunity to ascend to a model for post-disaster rebuild and re-envisioning; we have the threat of being a cautionary tale. At Rebuild Northbay Foundation, we are committed to not only being a model, but also then to share our experience and lessons with other communities affected by disasters and hopefully, enable them to address the challenges with greater success.

I know we have benefited here from the extensive education provided by other disaster communities as well as organizations dedicated to studying disaster management and providing philanthropy. We realize these are lofty goals, but we know this place, these people, are worth it. And we learned from others, like in Joplin, Missouri, that lofty goals produce amazing results.

How would you describe the rebuilding effort so far?

THOMPSON: For many who lost homes and businesses, it has been frustrating, emotional, and overwhelming. In truth, we are at the beginning and not all of the lots have been cleared, many have chosen to walk away and not rebuild. One thing to always bear in mind is these people did not set out to become homebuilders and again, many have traumatic experiences to heal from concurrently.

However, there has been a lot to recommend thus far. Builders are attending meetings to share concerns and resources, to ask questions of elected and public officials. I believe the public sector is listening to the concerns and adapting by changing policies, reducing fees, and increasing capacity wherever possible.

The 90 percent reimbursement from the federal government is a huge step forward in our recovery process as it will allow local and state entities to better address the rebuild needs without having to underwrite massive costs and face revenue shortfalls due to decreased tax base at the same time.

The influx of information about how to build greener and safer is heartening as well as the commitment of assistance from the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

The rebuild will never be fast enough, but we are poised as a region to respond to this disaster intelligently and effectively.

You describe the future direction of the foundation in terms of three “buckets.” Please explain.

THOMPSON: The three buckets are advocacy, coordination, and economic and workforce development. We chose these areas of concentration based upon what else was already being done and our desire not to duplicate, but instead complement and fill needs according to the specific abilities of our board. Obviously, there are needs beyond our scope, but our goal is to be as effective as possible in the named areas.

We also consciously chose areas that are integrative and mutually supportive. For example, we will not run programs, but we do convene and coordinate, therefore we can respond to the need to support job skills training in the trades to increase the labor force. To this end, we are working with several groups who do run programs with the goal of collaborating on a training center.

The group of business people, government leaders and others involved in Rebuild have been back to Washington, D.C., at least once, and plan to regularly return. How critical is it to getting the job done that there be regular visits to “electeds,” and why?

THOMPSON: Advocacy is critical on the federal and state levels to ensure maximum funding for the region. We have already been to Washington, D.C., five weeks ago working with lawmakers and federal agencies to request the 90/10 reimbursement level. We will go back to D.C. no less than quarterly to maintain the human connection and represent the needs of the area.

Our board of directors is committed to this effort as well as sharing our resources with nonprofit organizations and civic leaders to ensure they are not only able to advocate for their rebuild needs, but also have access at the highest levels possible. As a point of clarification, our Rebuild Northbay Foundation board members personally fund their own trips to D.C. They are committed to the mission and vision of our organization and to this region’s success.

What experience in the days after the fires still sticks in your mind, and did it play a role in leading you to take this job?

THOMPSON: Driving on Highway 12, looking at the twisted remains of people’s homes flanking the highway, and the charred landscape from pavement to mountaintops, and weeping the entire way, I recall specifically looking up behind Atwood Ranch and thinking, “I want to help rebuild this place. That is what I want my life to be about from here on out.”

I did not know what form that would take at the time, but when I attended the Community Foundation’s Resiliency event on November 24th, I heard Darius Anderson speak about Rebuild Northbay and I knew they were doing the work I wanted to do. I contacted him that day and met with him that night.

I appreciated his determination and vision for the organization. I met with Chair Elizabeth Gore, spoke with Michael Mondavi and became even more certain. This is, quite frankly, my dream job: I get to serve the community I love and that which has raised me. I wish the fires had not happened at all, but since they did, I am honored to be one small part of the process to rebuild.