For all of Catalina Island’s natural beauty, taking care of the business affairs of the Santa Catalina Island Company can make for a very hard day.
For more than a decade, Randy Herrel has carried out the “simple mission” of the Santa Catalina Island Company. “Our vision (and mission) is to develop a better experience for the people who come to Catalina Island,” says Herrel.
That’s where the simplicity ends.
Herrel and the Island Company must co-exist with Avalon and other civic officials, while owning most of the undeveloped land and a strategic partner with the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, the stewards of an island preserve now recognized around the world.
For instance, Herrel is concerned that many of the residents on the island charged with providing guests with four or five-star service who must live in residences “less than one star.”
He has spoken with community residents and his own employees about community parks and other improvements that cannot be built because of a lack of water. Admittedly, the relationship with local government has deteriorated in the past few years. For each forward step, there is seemingly a corresponding back step, and therein lies the challenge.
The tension reached a boiling point during the recent campaign wherein Herrel exploded with comments made about the Island Company and the Rusacks. Herrel had enough.
In the days since the election, Herrel says he is “much more optimistic” about the community coming together to work for the betterment of the entire island community.
“We are putting our money where our mouth is,” says Herrel, “caring about the conditions for our people means that we care about the conditions for everyone on the island.”
Herrel said they are interested in “facilitating a better quality of life.”
Regarding employee housing, Herrel said most of the units on the island are more than 60 years old and he questioned whether or not some of the units occupied by Island Company employees were even “up to code.”
Rather than building new homes, Herrel said he believes the island would be much better off demolishing many of the deplorable units and rebuilding them on site. “The first is to have some people tear down those terrible units and rebuild. That would vastly improve the quality of life. We should forget growth until that’s done. We need to take care of the incredible human beings that live here.”
The lack of housing is so severe that Herrel said the Island Company rents about 25 rooms for employees to live in until better accommodations can be found.
The Island Company recently announced plans to build 160 new units that he said would take care of the Island Company’s immediate demand.
Further, he said once complete, the movement of employees to these new units would result is a net gain of about 40 residences for Avalon.
Even better relations among island stakeholders, however, cannot fix the infrastructure challenges that are obstacles to sustainable impacts on the island.
The recent drought and its lingering effects have set off a massive slowdown in development projects.
Until new sources of water are found, the Island Company cannot even begin to think more seriously about the new housing.
There are two logical places to drill, said Herrel, Avalon Canyon and Middle Ranch. Avalon Canyon would add the least cost to the rate base while they are already drilling test wells at Middle Ranch.
Despite concerns expressed by some in the community about the possibility of salt water intrusion resulting from the drilling, Herrel said studies of the past 50 years indicate the criticism is “not accurate.”
Charts and experts “have advised us” that there are significant water resources below the aquifers and about 300-400 feet in the bedrock. They are closely coordinating their efforts with Edison, who owns all of the island’s water rights, and the city.
Herrel said one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining new sources of water is the plethora of agencies required to permit the operations. “The city could help us with the process,” he added. There are 18 known aquifers on the island, and geoexperts believe there is much fresh water in the bedrock below.
Fresh water from wells is a much quicker alternative than desalination efforts, said Herrel, although there is a huge variation of opinion on the length of the permitting process for desal projects.
In truth, however, Herrel said the Island Company believes in a “matrix of water solutions” for the future. While he thinks drilling the wells will yield the quickest results, the Island Company is committed to invest in a number of solutions, including air to water, desalination and other emergent technologies.
Herrel said the Island Company is keenly interested in building a better community for everyone, though his company’s employees and their business interests are the main priority. “We think about the community, not just us,” said Harrel, adding they have an open-door policy. “We will listen,” he said, “to any reasonable idea.”
For sure, says Herrel, we are “more interested in building a better lifestyle for current residents” rather than growing the population.
Herrel says the company is committed to its five-year plan of refurbishing the Atwater, building new housing units, investing in infrastructure and eventually, considering a plan to restore Mount Ada.
Though the mission is simple, the tasks are complex. By building a better community, says Herrel, his employees, and their dependents, will benefit.
He knows that his job requires him to confront every day a complex series of issues such as housing, infrastructure, government relations, etc. that eventually form the basis for the island’s future.
By working together and listening closer to the community, however, he believes a more workable consensus will lead to a better quality of life for island residents. That, in turn, will lead to a better experience for the visitors to Catalina Island and that’s the mission.