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Perspective: Marin County 2014

Author: Judith M. Wilson
December, 2013 Issue

NorthBay biz shines a spotlight on the economy and culture of Marin County.

Marin County is a study in contrasts. Just a bridge away from a major city, it’s resisted urban sprawl and instead become a cluster of distinct communities nestled in valleys alongside rugged headlands, sandy beaches, towering trees and an imposing mountain. Agriculture and the environment are part of its past as well as its present, and innovation and philanthropy are forces that define its future. It’s a unique place, one many of its residents consider paradise.
Despite its proximity to San Francisco, Marin County is lightly populated. With slightly more than 256,000 residents in a space of 520.31 square miles, it averages only 485 people per square mile, in contrast to Alameda County, which is also connected to San Francisco by a bridge but averages more than 2,000 residents per square mile. The reason? Marin residents love the natural environment and are willing to fight for it, so with dedicated open spaces and agricultural land, much of the county’s landscape is protected from development.


Environmental activism

Marin County’s environmental activism dates back to the early 1960s, when Gulf Oil owned a large expanse of the Marin Headlands that it intended to develop into a densely populated, planned community, Marincello. The post World War II building boom was in full swing, and development seemed unstoppable. The county approved the development despite growing opposition, but when lawsuits uncovered zoning irregularities, the county reversed its position, abruptly halting Marincello and relegating it to history.
The next big fight, from 1962 to 1972, involved Point Reyes. It too was slated for development, and plans called for major highway extensions to reach the coast, but a dawning environmental awareness resulted in a dramatically different outcome. “I saw the dangers in West Marin and worked hard for many years to help save thousands of acres and open space,” says Dr. Martin Griffin, one of the leaders of the movement to preserve the area’s natural character.
While serving on the Marin Municipal Water District and Audubon Canyon Ranch boards, Griffin (for whom the 1,000-acre nature preserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch in Stinson Beach is named) and his colleagues prevented freeways, water aqueducts and new developments in West Marin. The federal government eventually purchased the disputed land, which included farms, beaches and Drake’s Estero, and created the Point Reyes National Seashore, the starting point for the subsequent Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Today, environmental sensibilities are firmly established in Marin County, and new development almost always draws opposition, leading to land use issues that can go on for decades. As an example, the owners of the Martha Company’s Easton Point property have been trying to get approval to develop a tract of land in an unincorporated area of the county at the tip of the Tiburon Peninsula.
With a spectacular panoramic view, it’s prime real estate, but it’s also the site of 28 landslides, rare botanical species and the endangered red-legged frog. Further complicating the issue, development would compromise adjacent open space and add vehicles to a state highway that already has to accommodate twice its capacity during peak times. Even though a court order gave the owners the go-ahead in 1976, opposition continues and, in October, the Marin County Board of Supervisors sent back the latest Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for more study, so the protracted process continues.
It’s a dilemma, because it pits the right of the owners to use their property as they see fit against the community’s quality of life. The Tiburon Open Space Committee, however, believes it has an answer that would satisfy everyone. “The goal is to purchase it,” says spokesperson Jerry Riessen, who explains that the intent is to pay fair market value for the land and then combine it with existing dedicated adjacent open space, Old St. Hilary’s Open Space and Tiburon Uplands Preserve, and perhaps the Romberg Tiburon Center (San Francisco State University’s bayside marine research facility) to create a new regional park that would be affiliated with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “Realistically, it takes fund-raising,” says Riessen, but he notes that the community has a record of success in acquiring privately held land for public open space. “Everybody is very supportive,” he adds, citing the town of Tiburon, the city of Belvedere, Congressman Jared Huffman, Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears and Superintendent Frank Dean of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as supporters of the initiative. The committee is in the early stages of acquisition efforts, but to be successful, it will need foundations to help provide funding.

A question of balance

As much as everyone loves open space, it brings challenges. It limits space for housing, making real estate expensive, so it’s difficult for many of the people who work in Marin to live in the county, even many of those who provide essential services. Commuting is a way of life for them. But should a disaster occur, needed personnel such as police officers and firefighters, who have to travel from farther afield, might find it impossible to reach their places of employment when they’re needed most.
Workforce housing was a subject of discussion at the 10th Annual Forecasting the Future Economic Conference, which the Marin Economic Forum (MEF) and San Rafael Chamber of Commerce presented in October 2013 to examine current issues and trends. “We want Marin to be a place where our kids can live and work,” says Dr. Robert Eyler, CEO of MEF, pointing out that the desire for affordable housing and opposition to increased density create a conflict. “Vertical is the most likely option,” he says.
That’s the route Corte Madera took when it approved Tamal Vista, a four-story development of 180 housing units and 5,000 square feet of retail space in four buildings, currently under construction on a 4.5-acre former industrial site to meet requirements (based on figures that later proved to be incorrect) of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) for affordable and market-rate housing. It’s necessary, but as the buildings go up and members of the community begin to see the reality, complaints that Tamal Vista is excessively dense are increasing.
Coy Smith, CEO of the Novato Chamber of Commerce and member at large of the MEF board of directors, believes open space and commerce need to support one another. While Marin has a long history of its residents being environmentally caring, he believes that often, they don’t understand the role of business in a community’s economic survival. “It’s a balancing act. They need to work hand-in-hand,” he says, pointing out that a strong business community plays an essential part in generating the revenue needed to fund a community’s services and infrastructure, such as law enforcement and maintenance of roads and parks—and jobs are important, too. He supports environmental protection, but recognizes that it can stand in the way of reasonable development, as can the regulatory process, which sometimes allows delay after delay and appeal after appeal, until a property owner gives up. Public comment is important, says Smith, but, “At some point, decisions need to be made.”
A prime example is Grady Ranch in Lucas Valley. The owner, Lucasfilm, Ltd., wanted to build a studio on the site, which would have created jobs and added substantial tax revenue to county coffers. Neighborhood opposition and regulatory delays, however, derailed the project. In April 2012, after 25 years, Lucasfilm announced it would locate elsewhere, outside the county, and sell the property for the development of low-cost housing instead.

A renaissance in agriculture

Controversial land issues are a rarity in West Marin, due largely to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust’s (MALT) innovative model for preserving farmland. Biologist Phyllis Faber and the late Ellen Straus, a rancher, established MALT in 1980 to preserve farms and ranches at a time when development seemed inevitable. Essentially, MALT uses funds it’s raised to purchase the development rights to a property and retire them, thus preserving the land for agricultural use in perpetuity. The owner can sell or lease the land, but the MALT easement means it must be used for agricultural purposes.
It’s a model that can be a godsend for farmers facing challenges. They might, for example, inherit land and discover that onerous estate taxes, which are based on the market value for development rather than agriculture, would force them to sell the land. In another scenario, they might require capital to buy more land to expand and start a new business, and selling the agricultural conservation easement gives them the funds they need. “Landowners come to us when they need our help,” says Deirdre Holbrook, MALT’s director of outreach and communications. To date, MALT has preserved 76 farms on 46,000 acres, but the amount of farmland still zoned for development exceeds that, so the work continues.
All told, half the land in Marin—167,000 acres—is zoned agricultural, and 87 percent is used for dairy, livestock, hay and silage. Agricultural businesses contribute $70 million to the local economy, with milk production accounting for 55 percent of that total. High-quality produce, a handful of small wineries, the production of unique cheeses, organic meats and aquaculture are all part of a diverse mixture of agriculture-related businesses that focus on organic production and sustainability.
Loren Poncia, a fourth-generation rancher, raises sheep and cattle in Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties (with the majority raised on the home ranch at Stemple Creek Ranch near Tomales). He believes the North Bay area raises some of the best lamb in the world and attributes it to the area’s Mediterranean climate, which is conducive to raising high quality lamb and beef.
One of a new breed of farmers, many of whom left rural life to get college degrees and then returned, Poncia sees agriculture in Marin County undergoing a renaissance. Several years ago, he read Michael Pollan’s highly regarded book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and says, “It made me look at everything from a different perspective.” He realized that, in the early 1900s, all the people in the area knew each other and what they produced, and they consumed local products. He decided to start marketing his products closer to home and feed his cattle grass exclusively. “People in the Bay Area care where their food comes from,” he says. “Marketing our product locally and being organic was a choice we made to connect directly with consumers.”
Making the transition from conventional farming practices to organic requires eliminating all synthetic fertilizers, sprays and herbicides so the ground can be certified organic. It’s a three-year process, but since Poncia had started making changes two years earlier, Stemple Creek Ranch was certified only a year later one. The ranch received ground certification in 2008, and got cattle followed in 2009. (The sheep aren’t certified, but they eat only organic grass or hay.) It was a difficult time financially, because the ranch wasn’t producing revenue; however, Poncia has a job selling veterinary products, and his wife, Lisa, is an attorney with a practice in San Rafael, so they were able to make the commitment.
Poncia finds West Marin’s new ventures in cheese, beef and lamb and more direct marketing exciting. Stemple Creek Ranch is at the Marin Civic Center Farmers Market every Sunday, and Poncia enjoys the opportunity to sell to customers without a lot of middlemen. “I wanted to encourage direct relationships with our customers,” he says. “We have many of the same customers every single week. It’s great to see the support our community has given us.”


Whether it’s agriculture or technology, Marin County is a breeding ground for new ideas. In Nicasio, the Marin Carbon Project is conducting research to determine how much carbon the soil can absorb and hold over time. The goal is to find out if taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transferring it to the ground through photosynthesis, thus creating organic soil matter, would help slow or reverse global warming—and, if so, if it would be economically viable. Among the potential advantages, the process would improve soil and water quality, increase production, decrease erosion and reduce the need for petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. It’s a low-tech approach and, should it prove successful, it would create both ecological and economic opportunities.
At the other end of the technology spectrum, Autodesk, Inc., a multinational software corporation based in San Rafael, has been developing groundbreaking, desktop-based 3-D software for architects, engineers, construction, manufacturing, the media and entertainment industry for 31 years. “No one else is doing what Autodesk is doing,” says MEF’s Eyler.
Always moving forward, in 2011, the company introduced new, cloud-based design software that’s reached millions of professional customers. “Autodesk is about making it possible for anyone with an idea or spark to use our software to experience their ideas before they’re real; to make something; and to explore and prove much more quickly than ever before,” says Alexandra Constantine of Autodesk’s global public relations team. Its products have been involved in projects such as New York City’s Freedom Tower and Visual Effects Academy Award-winning movies for the last 18 years.
BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc., with labs in Novato and corporate offices in San Rafael, is also making an impact, doing specialized work at the center of a burgeoning local life sciences industry. “We make therapies for very, very ultra-rare diseases,” says Debra Charlesworth, director of corporate communications, who explains the company focuses on rare genetic diseases that aren’t related to lifestyle. “It’s in the DNA,” she says. She gives bNM breast cancer, a hereditary, genetically defined cancer, as an example. Angelina Jolie was at high risk for the disease and made headlines earlier this year, when she took preemptive steps to avoid it. “We’re developing a therapy for people like her,” says Charlesworth, adding that the number of patients is very small. “We, as a company, want to make a big difference for a small population,” she says, explaining that BioMarin wants to be “first in class or best in class. Otherwise, we don’t do it.”
With only a few hundred patients around the world in some cases, the company operates globally, but has had its center of operations in Marin County for 16 years. Charlesworth cites easy accessibility from San Francisco, the East Bay and other areas of the North Bay, as well as the availability of skilled employees as advantages of locating in Marin, along with a good business climate and a beautiful location. “We’ve had a really good relationship with the cities we’ve been in,” she adds.

Economic vitality

“Certain companies want to locate here because it’s beautiful,” says Novato Chamber’s Smith. “And they know it’s going to stay pristine.”
With a population of slightly more than 53,000 residents, Novato is Marin’s second-largest city and home to some significant businesses, including Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, one of the county’s largest employers, and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the country’s first independent biomedical facility to focus exclusively on aging and related diseases. Health care is also a presence at Novato Community Hospital, Sutter Health’s acute-care facility, and the city has a fair number of small and medium-sized businesses, with digital gaming a growing sector.
Retail is an important element of the local economy as well, with taxes from retail sales contributing 20 to 25 percent of the city’s annual budget. The largest revenue comes from automobile dealers, who take in $70 million to $80 million in retail sales annually. The drawback is that Novato has only three marques, so the city loses business to communities that offer other brands. “Clearly, it’s a significant part of the leakage,” says Smith, explaining that people also leave the community to purchase supplies for building and landscaping and items for the home. “We’re losing a significant part of retail based on that,” he says, so the city is working to attract new retail businesses that will offer opportunities that don’t exist now.
The subject of a planning study and recent community discussion, the redevelopment of the underused area of North Redwood Boulevard between DeLong Avenue and San Marin Drive could be a chance for Novato to attract businesses that offer products and services, although, Smith acknowledges, it’s private property, and you can’t tell people what to do. He also sees a big synergy involving companies like BioMarin, so the city is attempting to attract more life sciences companies to the community as well.
With nearly 58,000 residents, San Rafael is Marin County’s largest city, and its central location makes it, “the nexus of business here in Marin,” says Rick Wells, CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s Economic Vitality Committee, which is focusing on a business retention and expansion program as well as economic vitality issues, is in the process of interviewing between 80 and 100 businesses to get recommendations for improvement, collecting data the Marin Economic Forum will turn into an annual report. The Chamber’s goal is to turn the feedback into meaningful action steps. Wells adds that the intent is to encourage businesses to grow and stay in San Rafael by making it a place where they can do business and make a profit. “It’s truly a partnership between the business community, the chamber, the city, and MEF,” he says.
Wells reports that the city’s largest businesses are Kaiser Permanente San Rafael Medical Center, Marin General Hospital, Autodesk, Safeway and a newly opened Target store. “We have a very diverse base of businesses,” says Wells, adding that the largest number is small businesses with fewer than 20 employees.
Development and support of the local economy is a focus for the Chamber of Commerce, and it recently held a business showcase with close to 100 exhibitors, making it the largest local business tradeshow in Marin County. It was an event that allowed hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals to make professional connections, says Wells, who believes the health of a community stems from a strong and vibrant business community. He describes the city of San Rafael as mostly business-friendly, in large part because city staff works with the chamber to understand the needs of businesses.

A healthy climate

Marin General Hospital (MGH) is one of the county’s biggest employers, with more than 1,600 on staff, including 559 physicians. In 2012, it had 111,295 in-patient admissions, 155,774 outpatients and more than 35,000 visitors to the emergency department.
Founded in 1952, MGH returned to community ownership in 2010 after the Marin Healthcare District broke its lease with Sutter Health, which had operated the hospital since 1985. Rancor on the board marked the Sutter years, as opposing factions clashed over the hospital’s operation and future in a very public fight. With the successful return to local control, however, MGH seems to be on firm footing, with outcomes in some areas, including heart attacks, well above national standards. “Our success rate for coronary intervention consistently exceeds 98 percent,” says spokesperson Hatti Hamlin, who adds that the Catheterization Lab team’s rapid response for heart attack patients is impressive. “Our median door-to-treatment time is twice as fast as the national average, resulting in many saved lives,” she says.
In addition to essential services, MGH also engages in activities that are unusual for a community hospital. “The cancer center is unbelievably good,” says Hamlin, explaining that it conducts clinical trials, some that take place only at five other major medical centers in the country. “You just don’t find that in a community hospital,” she says. MGH also has specialized facilities, such as the Braden Diabetes Center and TAM (Total Atherosclerosis Management), a prevention and rehabilitation program that aims to keep heart disease from developing or progressing. “It’s for people who are at high risk for a heart attack,” says Hamlin.
Although Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael and Sutter Health’s Novato Community Hospital also offer essential services and serve a substantial number of patients, MGH is the only medical facility with a designated trauma center, labor and delivery services, a full-service cancer care program, comprehensive heart and vascular care, an accredited chest pain center, an in-patient pediatric program, a spine and brain institute, a primary stroke center and acute in-patient psychiatric services.
MGH also focuses on initiatives to encourage a healthy lifestyle, offering classes and programs through the Center for Integrated Health and Wellness, as well as holding forums on breast cancer and “Mammo Days” to offer low-cost mammograms and encourage screening.
“What Marin General Hospital has accomplished in the past few years of local control is truly extraordinary,” says Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joel Sklar. “We’ve put in place critical technology, attracted extraordinary specialists and developed or enhanced our remarkable centers for cancer, cardiac and diabetes prevention and care. Marin residents truly don’t have to leave their community to receive world-class care.”
Beyond the hospitals, several community clinics offer outpatient services to underserved residents. Among them, RotaCare Bay Area, which has the support of the Rotary clubs of Marin Sunrise and Mission San Rafael, operates a free clinic for the uninsured in the Kaiser Permanente building in downtown San Rafael every Monday and Thursday and offers referrals to specialty clinics in dermatology, psychology and ophthalmology that take place once per month. The clinic also offers a healthy living program, a relaxation techniques class and vaccinations, as well as HIV testing on a monthly basis. Volunteer physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, registrars, clerks, interpreters and onsite administrators all donate their services to the clinic, which receives no government funding.

A breath of fresh air

A healthy community is happy one and, in Marin County, that means fresh air and exercise in an area blessed with opportunities. With two national parks, six state parks, 21 county parks, 34 open space preserves occupying 18,500 acres and a wealth of community parks, it’s an outdoor lovers’ paradise, despite the area’s inevitable fog and wind.
Muir Woods National Monument and the Golden Gate National Seashore are the most famous, but the diversity of parks caters to every taste, from dogs frolicking at the bayside Dog Run in Mill Valley to aficionados of disc golf playing on the course at 139-acre Stafford Lake Park in Novato, which also hosts large events, including musical performances and barbecues for groups up to 500 people. In Southern Marin, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, bird lovers can watch the fall raptor migration from Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, while in West Marin, kids ages 2 to 12 work off their energy at Toby’s Community Playground, a mini park in Point Reyes Station with a playground and picnic area just for them. McNear’s Beach, a 55-acre regional park along the San Pablo Bay shoreline in San Rafael, has a fishing pier, swimming pool, volleyball courts, tennis courts, access for kayaks and canoes and a picnic area, giving families lots to do on sunny days.
A short boat ride from the Southern Marin shore, visitors to Angel Island State Park can travel back in time and delve into history at the historic U.S. Immigration Station, which served as a West Coast counterpart to Ellis Island from 1910 to 1940. They can get around the island’s perimeter by tram, and from the far side of the island, they can see a panoramic view that includes five bridges on a clear day. Segway, scooter and bicycle are other options, and hikers can even do the five-mile loop around the islandon foot. History is also alive in Northern Marin, where Miwok Park and Museum in Novato highlight Marin’s first people and their history.
Towering above it all is Mt. Tamalpais, Marin’s iconic mountain, with 6,300 acres of redwood groves, chaparral, oak woodlands and breathtaking views. Its network of trails inspired the creation of the mountain bike; equestrians explore the mountain’s wooded slopes on horseback; and Bolinas Ridge is a jump-off point for hang gliders destined for Stinson Beach. Camp Tamarancho, a Boy Scout camp above Fairfax, has welcomed generations of boys to Mt. Tam’s natural world.

A long reach

Nature is one of the characteristics important to people who live in Marin, and it also draws visitors. Mark Essman, president/CEO of the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is located in San Rafael and serves Corte Madera, Fairfax, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Novato, Point Reyes, San Anselmo, San Rafael and parts of the unincorporated West Marin area, reports that tourism is up and, annually, more than 12 million people visit Marin County attractions. Most tourists are “day-trippers”—only 20 percent stay overnight—but tourism provides 6,700 jobs nonetheless, making it one of the county’s largest employment sectors. Annual visitor spending in Marin County in 2012 was up to $600 million, compared to $95 billion for the entire state of California. "We’re always going to have a fixed amount of room inventory, but we’re pleased to see spending in Marin continually increase each year.
“We’re still a small fish in a big pond,” he says, “but we compliment our neighbors nicely with wide variety of venues Marin has to offer.”
“The primary reason people come to Marin is for its outdoor activities,” says Essman, citing open space, whale watching and art festivals as examples of the attractions, “but Marin also has outstanding cultural events, great food choices and events, especially when it comes to natural, sustainable produce. And each community offers something different.We have a number of signature events in Marin County. We always have a full slate,” he adds, with the Sausalito Art Festival and the Marin County Fair among them. In addition, high-profile events such as the Mill Valley Film Festival and the RCP Tiburon Mile, which claims to be the fastest open-water swim in the world, draw people from all over the globe, and thousands of foreign tourists revel in the thrill of cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge and exploring Southern Marin on two wheels.
“We’re seeing a lot more bikers coming through. They leave San Francisco and take the ferry back. More and more merchants are installing racks so cyclists will have a place leave their bikes and enjoy what Tiburon has to offer,” says Jill Rodby, director of marketing for the town of Tiburon. She observes that Angel Island State Park also draws visitors to Tiburon, and the town’s two hotels cater to business as well as tourists. “We also get a lot of conventioneers from the big ones in San Francisco coming over to enjoy a day outside of the city,” she adds.
Essman says the lack of large hospitality venues limits major convention business, but the county draws smaller groups of 100 to 350 people for two or three days at a time. “That’s our niche market,” he explains, reporting that such gatherings account for 25 percent of Marin’s tourism business. The leisure market, at 70 percent, is by far the largest, and 5 percent is spillover, which includes business such as staff retreats. Repeat business accounts for 45 percent of all tourism.
Essman expects the coming year to be a good one for travel. “The new trend is looking for an experience,” he says, adding that cheesemaking and fork-to-table dining are currently popular. The Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail is known for its artisan cheeses, and visitors can get a map with the locations of participating dairies and spend a day in the country doing the rounds of tasting rooms.
People also are taking advantage of apps to look for deals, coupons and activities, and while mobile apps are popular, tablets are more so, with many businesses taking tablet reservations. “The tablet is going to replace the mobile phone as the number one way visitors make reservations,” says Essman. It’s a movement that’s making a difference in the way people travel. “A lot of people are waiting until the last minute to make travel plans,” he says. “They’re looking for the best deal. It’s a trend for young people in particular.” He also observes that fewer people are taking two-week vacations. Instead, they’re taking multiple short trips, getting into the car on a Thursday and taking off for a few days.
He notes that Marin is between San Francisco and Wine Country, and the area complements rather than competes with them, so, he says, “We can be a stopover, as we’re centrally located, don’t have parking issues, we’re affordable compared to the entire [Bay Area], and we offer visitors the best of both worlds.”

Arts galore

Because of its accessibility, it’s easy for Marin residents to get to San Francisco to enjoy world-class art, music and theater, but Marin has its own thriving arts scene. It’s an area that attracts musicians and has a rich history, with rock greats Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia part of its history and Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar a current presence. For lovers of classical music, the Marin Symphony with Maestro Alasdair Neale and Golden Gate Opera with Roberta Wain Becker at the helm offer top-notch productions during their regular seasons.
The summer months offer a wealth of art festivals and events, with Marin Open Studios and San Rafael’s Italian Street Painting Festival among the favorites. Marin Society of Artists, a nonprofit organization with 250 members, has galleries at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross, including a rental gallery with hundreds of works available for rent to enhance home or office spaces.
Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley and Ross Valley Players, which puts on plays at the Barn Theatre at the Marin Art & Garden Center, are two major players in the drama scene, and the volunteers of Masque Unit, Junior Theatre of Marin, which performs at the Marin Center, have been mounting special productions for children for more than 50 years. “James and the Giant Peach” is on the program for 2014.
Unique to Marin is the Mountain Play, which had small beginnings in 1912, when three gentlemen hiking on Mt. Tamalpais happened upon a natural amphitheater. Outdoor theater was popular at the time, and they decided it would be a great place to stage a play. The Mountain Play made its debut in 1913 and was an immediate success, with 1,200 people taking the Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway up the mountain to catch the show. William Kent owned the land and, in 1915, he gave it to the Mountain Play Association, which turned it over to California State Parks in 1936. With WPA (the Works Progress Administration was a signature program of FDR’s New Deal) funding, the Civilian Conservation Corps then spent six years installing huge serpentine boulders for seating.
“The construction of the amphitheater was a miracle,” says Sara Pearson, executive director of the Mountain Play Association, who explains that it was an amazing feat because without modern equipment, workers had to use levers, ropes and chain hoists. The designer, Emerson Knight, based his plans on classic Greek amphitheaters with respect for the mountain environment, with serpentine rocks and native plants. “He was trying to preserve the spirit of Mt. Tam,” says Pearson.
The Mountain Play celebrated its centennial in 2013, with 21,000 people attending a well-received production of “The Sound of Music,” most of them getting to and from the mountain in school buses. Pearson describes the Mountain Play as a funny, hybrid kind of theater, and it’s one Marin residents love. It’s only six shows a year, in May and June, but it’s an experience, with food and entertainment beforehand and the opportunity to hike down the mountain after. Some families take a picnic, and some people read the newspaper while others go on a hike. Some even bring battery-powered margarita mixers. “People have their own traditions,” says Pearson.
Going into its centennial year, the Mountain Play was coming out of a three-year slump, with low attendance resulting from the recession. “The timing was unbelievable,” says Pearson. The play’s budget is in the $1 million range, but the association raised funds from corporate, foundation and personal sponsors, including Autodesk, to cover about one-third of the costs. “People really stepped up and helped out so we could survive those three years,” says Pearson. “We’re absolutely thrilled to be back in the saddle again and financially stable.”
“South Pacific” is on the program for 2014, and it’s a show patrons have requested and the Mountain Play has been trying to get for years. “We’re thrilled to have “South Pacific,” says Pearson.

The next generation

Marin is a great place for kids, with activities in abundance. The Bay Area Discovery Museum gives children a chance to explore their environment with hands-on arts and science activities, such as Get Ready to Get Messy, a class in which children ages 2 to 4 explore color with an adult caregiver. For bigger kids, Nature Lab is an outdoor activity in which kids find three natural materials and explore the many ways they can combine them. In the stately mansion at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael, Marin’s youngest residents get a fantastical experience at the Mad Hatter’s Spring Tea Party, and for families wanting a taste of country life, MALT offers visits to local farms. And the Marin Humane Society offers Share a Book: Read to a Therapy Dog, an after-school program that lets timid readers improve their skills by reading to dogs in a non-judgmental setting.
Marin residents put a high value on education. Census figures show that 92 percent of Marin residents are high school graduates, 54 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher and they want to make sure their offspring have the best possible education. Every school district in the county has a parent-driven school foundation, which raises money to fill in the gaps caused by budget cuts and pay for items such as art, music and technology, so students will have a well-rounded education.
While many high school graduates leave the county to go to college, higher education offers opportunities close to home. The focus of College of Marin, with campuses in Kentfield and Novato’s Indian Valley, prepares students to transfer to the University of California after two years, but it also offers opportunities for job training in specialized fields such as court reporting, nursing, automotive collision repair and hands-on cheesemaking. COM’s Community Education lets students of all ages develop professional skills, find new careers and follow their passions. And an emeritus program lets older residents enjoy the benefits of lifelong learning.
In San Rafael, Dominican University of California is a degree-granting institution that was founded in 1890 as Dominican College. Its programs are academic and focus on humanities, business, education and nursing. Professional development for teachers includes a teacher preparation program culminating in a California teaching credential, a master’s in education degree and preparation to instruct English language learners and students with special needs.
Dominican’s School of Business and Leadership offers a green MBA that focuses on sustainable business practices and development, while its adult degree completion program lets working adults complete degrees in a variety of fields, including business administration, humanities and cultural studies and psychology. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, for adults ages 50 and older, offers short courses of four to eight weeks for enrichment. Its Venture Greenhouse is a business accelerator and incubator, as well as a community resource.
San Francisco State University offers studies for a master of science degree in Marine Science at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies. Students study the ecosystem of San Francisco Bay firsthand in nearby salt marshes and rocky, intertidal areas as well as open water. It also offers short courses that provide professional training in wetlands science and management.

Philanthropy in action

Marin County is known for its affluence, and with it comes great generosity. The Marin Community Foundation (MCF) was established in 1986 with the assets of a trust left by Leonard and Beryl H. Buck. In fiscal year 2012, it distributed $59,136,825 in grant funding, of which $1,864,900 was in arts in the community grants. Among the many initiatives MCF supports are the Marin Carbon Project and 10,000 Degrees, a nonprofit organization in San Rafael that provides support and mentoring for students who are the first in their families to go to college. In November, it was a sponsor of Día de los Muertos, a Hispanic cultural celebration at the Albert J. Boro Community Center in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood.
Marin is home to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, and the number grows as residents respond to society’s needs in new and creative ways. Shifting Gears made its debut in late 2012 with Charles Goodman of Ross as chairman. A classic car collector, he was a founder of the Marin Sonoma Concours d’Elegance, and one of his goals for Shifting Gears was to create an event in which drivers could take their classic cars on the road rather than simply displaying them. The first Shifting Gears rally, black-tie gala and auction took place in October, and its goal was to raise funds for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation, which Jeremy and Erica Kelly of Mill Valley founded after their children were diagnosed with the genetic disease. The charity is especially meaningful to Goodman, because he and his wife, Barbara, lost their grandson to the disease when he was just 11 days old.
“The three-day event brought in an unbelievable and unexpected $400,000,” says board member Peter Herley of San Rafael. “It was the first major fund-raising endeavor Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation ever held. The entire event was a success far beyond any of our expectations.”
People who are ready to rally for a cause and help others are one of Marin’s big strengths, along with an educated workforce ready to take on challenges, excellent services and quality of life. “Who wouldn’t want to live in Marin County?” asks Novato’s Smith. “It’s a natural draw.”


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