Cover Stories

Coming to Terms With a Changing Mountain Life

Why Santa Cruz’s mountain towns are suddenly booming

Anil Prajapati—a full-time tax accountant who also owns and runs Boulder Creek’s Lille Aeske Arthouse by night—and Anna Adamsky, the venue's music and events curator. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

If you walk by Mountain Spirit, the quirky metaphysical shop on the corner of Felton’s one-road downtown strip, you might notice a hitching post gathering dust outside. Just a decade ago, locals would come to tie up their horses on the corner of Highway 9 and Felton Empire Road before stopping in the store for crystals, candles or whatever else they needed, says shop owner Candi Lee Fragassi. 

“Now you don’t see that,” Fragassi says. “There’s just a lot more traffic.” 

Fragassi moved to Felton almost 20 years ago with a dream to open the metaphysical store she now operates with her husband, but it took the two about a decade to finally take the plunge. “I’d seen a lot of businesses come and go,” she says. “It wasn’t that easy for businesses to survive.” 

Now, she says, things are different. And not just because of the horses. A new wave of shops like Mountainside General Store, Wild Iris Floral and Botanical, and the Felton Mercantile—which celebrated its soft opening on Jan. 22—are spurring a retail renaissance in the area where local goods reign and female-owned and operated is becoming the new norm. 

“It’s like the mountain magic, as cheesy as that sounds,” says Amber Duncan, who opened the Mountainside General Store, selling her handmade jewelry and goods from other local markers in October 2018. “There’s this strong community of women hustling and opening up shops.” 

For Molly Kavanaugh, who took over ownership of Highway 9’s Wild Iris in March 2017, the changes are exciting. In the last year or so, Kavanaugh’s watched from her one-room shop adorned with exotic houseplants and colorful, locally-grown flowers as empty storefronts turned into several new shops on the small downtown strip. “It definitely came alive in the last year,” she says, explaining that with all the new openings, there aren’t many retail spaces left. “We’re pretty packed in here now, and pretty happy.” 

Kavanaugh credits the changes, in part, to sky-high rent prices for retail spaces in neighboring Santa Cruz, and a steadily increasing population in the mountains. “I think with more people there’s a lot more reasons to make our community more useful,” she says. 

Felton’s population grew by about 2.5% from 2016 to 2017, while the neighboring town of Ben Lomond underwent a 5% increase that same year, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s equivalent to about 500 extra people in the tiny towns, where populations sit at 3,671 and 6,923, respectively. 

“There’s so many people who are being priced out of Santa Cruz,” Duncan says. “It’s slightly more affordable up here for housing, so I think a lot of people are migrating up the mountain.” 

The median home value in Felton currently sits at $675,000—more than twice that of just eight years ago, according to estimates from Zillow. Boulder Creek saw a similar jump from $337,000 in 2012 to $616,000 last December. Despite the sharp increases, real estate in both towns is a bargain when compared with neighboring Santa Cruz, where home prices consistently rank above $900,000. 

FINE LINE

In addition to those seeking out cheaper digs or looking for a more peaceful neighborhood, the area is also gleaning an increasing reputation as a hub for “over the hill,” commuters, who travel from the mountains to jobs in the Silicon Valley area. 

“A lot of people from the greater Bay Area, San Jose and Palo Alto seem to be buying property here or coming to visit,” says Duncan, joking that there’s a lot of “money and Teslas,” taking up residence in the area these days. 

By the numbers, the Santa Cruz Mountains are certainly seeing an influx of new cash, as median household incomes ticked up in Boulder Creek, Felton and Ben Lomond in recent years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In Felton specifically, the median household income jumped from $71,763 in 2015, to $95,260 in 2016 and $108,409 in 2017, accounting for about a 44% increase across the three-year span. 

Local entrepreneurs say that while it’s great to have so many new residents discovering the area, there is also a fear of the new attention pricing out longtime locals and threatening the quiet, mountain charm that attracted so many residents in the first place. “There’s definitely that fear here,” Duncan says. “It’s a fine line.” 

Erin Zimmer, who took over control of Henfling’s of Ben Lomond with her fiance in 2018, says that while changes can be scary, the community in the mountains is withstanding. 

“We’re lucky enough to live in an area where it won’t change too much. We’re not going to get a Walmart,” Zimmer says. “It’s still gonna be a small mountain town where hopefully everyone has your back.” 

CULTURAL TRADITIONS

As retail spaces continue popping up across the mountains, the music scene is undergoing a revival of its own. Helping to lead that charge is Anil Prajapati, a full-time tax accountant by day, and owner and operator of Boulder Creek’s Lille Aeske Arthouse—Danish for “little box”—by night. 

“I just felt a calling from the universe that this is what I needed to do,” Prajapati says from the arthouse’s cozy kitchen space, peppered with Edison lighting and potted houseplants. “Keeping the arts and music alive, to me, that’s one of the most important things for our community. That’s what makes all of this rewarding.” 

Since opening in 2016, the 45-seat venue—which hosts two or three events a week—has garnered a reputation as an intimate listening room, where the music is always center-stage. 

“To me, a venue like that is an opportunity to have a beautiful-sounding room and a crowd that’s in the palm of your hand,” says Los Gatos musician Ren Geisick of the cozy performance space with a rounded, wood-paneled ceiling. “It’s so intimate that they can’t help but really listen to you and dig into the musical experience you’re trying to give them.” 

The intimacy in the seated venue is no accident, Prajapati says. In part, it’s a harkening back to simpler times, and an honoring of Boulder Creek’s historic, musical roots. “When you come through here it reminds you of that time when it was more artistic. It wasn’t computer driven,” he says. “I think it attracts the crowd that represents what Boulder Creek was.” 

Prajapati isn’t alone in using new spaces to pay tribute to the mountains’ musical past. Thomas Cussins, who opened Felton Music Hall last year in the building that formerly housed beloved restaurant-venue Don Quixote’s—and much more briefly, Flynn’s Cabaret—says uplifting the space’s history is paramount. 

“There was a very free, accepting scene around Don Quixote’s where you could really let loose,” says Cussins, who frequented the venue during his time as a UCSC undergrad in the mid-2000s. “We wanted to restore the glory of Don Quixote’s and continue bringing the type of music that could really unite the community around a shared experience.” 

A couple of miles down Highway 9, in Ben Lomond, is Henfling’s. While the establishment might be best known for its fabled history as a biker hangout and community watering hole, Zimmer explains that music comprised an integral part of the bar’s 70-year history. “There’s a lot of stories about how 20 years ago the place would be full of people, the music was better and people actually wanted to come for shows,” she says. 

When she and her fiance took over, they installed a new stage set-up, new PA system, and hired a new booking agent for shows. Now, the two offer free shows most nights of the week with acts ranging from Grateful Dead tributes, to slow rock, to Karaoke. “We’ve got a lot of karaoke fans up here,” Zimmer says with a laugh. 

Zimmer—who bartended at Henfling’s for years before acquiring the business—says that she wanted to keep the old spirit of Henfling’s alive. “We might own it, but it’s definitely the community’s bar. It’s like their living room, so we didn’t want to change it too much,” she says. “It still has the charm it always has, it’s just cleaner now.” 

Mountain Spirit in Felton embodies the quirky charm the community has always been known for. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Mountain Spirit in Felton embodies the quirky charm the community has always been known for. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

MAKING IT WORK

Despite the strong artistic bent in the mountains, Prajapati explains that getting the finances to add up at his tiny venue is tricky. 

“When I say it’s not lucrative, I mean this cannot be about the money. This has to be about the community,” says Prajapati, noting that he often spends well over 40 hours a week working in the arthouse, on top of his full-time accounting job. “It’s definitely not easy.” 

James Mackessy—who initially opened Lille Aeske with his wife before selling to Prajapati in July—says the scale of the venue, coupled with Boulder Creek’s “accessibility issue” and high cost of living, ultimately fed into the couple’s decision to move on from the area altogether. 

“As sad as it was to leave the Santa Cruz Mountains, between the cost of living and the environmental and social pressures that area is facing … It started to feel a little fictional to me. It started to feel like there wasn’t as much room as everybody wanted there to be,” Mackessy says. “The trend that we saw was that poorer people were getting pushed out.” 

Now, the pair are searching for a property to house their artistic vision in Racine, Wis., where Mackessy says the real estate market is, “a bit more realistic for anything other than a tech startup.” 

From an artist’s point of view, the increased popularity of streaming services and a rapidly-changing music industry can further exacerbate these monetary challenges, notes Geisick. 

“Around here, it’s just a complete grind. You have to love it a lot,” says Geisick, who plays professionally in three bands, on top of teaching jazz vocals and working part-time as an administrative assistant. “I think we’re all asking the same questions, like, ‘How do I make this work?’’’

For Cussins, it is these very trends that make it so important to spotlight local artists at Felton Music Hall. “I think we have an obligation to showcase anybody who’s committed to bringing arts to the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he says of his venue that books at least one local act a week. “If those folks are priced out of our communities, the culture of our community will change for the worse.” 

At neighboring Lille Aeske, community volunteers gather before each show to prepare a home-cooked meal for performing artists. For traveling musicians—or Santa Cruzans who don’t want to trek down Highway 9 after a show—the arthouse even provides a spare bedroom where bands can stay for the night, enjoy a warm shower and cook breakfast in the morning. Prajapati says creature comforts like this help to provide respite for traveling musicians, who often spend nights couch-surfing or sleeping in their vans between shows. About half of the artists end up taking him up on this offer, he says. 

The mountain trend of supporting all local everything extends into the retail space, too. For Kavanaugh, this means looking within the county when sourcing plants and flowers for her shop. “We want to support our local farmers and keep our local economy going,” she says. 

For Duncan, it means selling goods from other local makers and Santa Cruz Mountain artists at the Mountainside General Store. This, she says, is one of the best ways to ensure that money stays in the community and the community can stay in the mountains. 

“It really feels like everyone has each other’s back and wants each other’s businesses to succeed,” Cussins says. “There’s just nothing like it. For me, it’s like the American dream come true in the Santa Cruz Mountains.” 

As the mountains continue to change, its entrepreneurs hope to keep this supportive, small town charm alive. “I don’t really care what the prevailing tide is,” Cussins says. “I think it’s part of the shared responsibility we all have to make the community we want to live in. And we’re gonna do that. We’re not going anywhere.” 

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Music man

    March 3, 2020 at 10:42 am

    I lived in the SC mountains from 2000 to 2001, and got to see a lot of great acts at Henflings during that time, such as Maria Muldar, The David Nelson Band, Colin Hay, and others. It was a real treat to have such diverse acts playing there in the small community of Ben Lomond.

  2. Vicky Smith

    February 20, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    One thing that was not mentioned in this article is the incredible success of Wild Roots across the street in Felton from the above mentioned shops. I think that grocery store that is constantly busy now, has helped to bring people daily to downtown Felton.

  3. Barbara

    February 20, 2020 at 7:18 am

    Inspiring story. I have only been to the area once, but think about the area often.

  4. Barbara

    February 19, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Great story, can’t wait to get up there and rediscover these places!

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