If Cheryl Paduano could take back her and her husband’s decision to buy the Soda Springs General Store in 2003, she would.
“We wished to God we went to Mexico and had margaritas,” she said over speaker phone, working in the store’s deli section as she talked. “It’s so difficult to make it here, it’s so seasonal … We pay ourselves $30,000 a year; it’s poverty.”
Ironically, the Paduanos’ general store is a relative Donner Summit business success story, considering it’s stuck around so long. Since Interstate 80’s completion through the area in the early 1960s, the once-upon-a-time community of restaurants, bars, hotels, lodges, and other businesses has dwindled drastically.
“Along came the freeway and the traffic was gone,” explained Bill Oudegeest, vice president of both the Donner Summit Association (DSA) and the Donner Summit Historical Society. “There were sometimes thousands of cars a day up here on Highway 40. They all went out to the freeway. You see the economy on Donner Summit in a downhill spiral for decades ever since the mid-1960s.”
In recent years, the DSA and historical society have embarked on various initiatives to revitalize Donner Summit’s economy, including the formation of Nevada County’s Soda Springs Area Plan and a recreation plan that is still in the development process. The goal is to work hand-in-hand with local organizations and businesses to return the area to a year-round destination.
Donner Summit is certainly worth the attention, too, Oudegeest said, citing the area as “the most historically significant square mile in California, maybe the entire western United States.” Among other important historical events, he mentioned Native Americans’ use of the pass; first wagon trails across the rugged Sierra Nevada terrain; and challenges completing both the first transcontinental railroad and highway.
“There are a million stories,” he finished.
The Soda Springs Area Plan, completed in 2016, serves as “the comprehensive land use and zoning plan for the Donner Summit region and community of Soda Spring[s] and embod[ying] the expressed goals of residents, business owners, and elected officials and establish[ing] concrete and achievable actions” (as stated in the plan purpose). The rezoning portion, by the way, allows a variety of commercial activity on either side of a portion of Donner Pass Road in Soda Springs.
“We were fortunate, in fact, because there are other areas in Nevada County that would really like to have an area plan for them,” said DSA president Pat Malberg. “… I’ll tell you what, [the Soda Springs Area Plan] does not sit on the shelf. We are constantly taking pieces out of it and reminding people how important it is.”
The DSA and historical society often reference the plan for grants, including Placer County money received for the creation and installation of a welcome monument and the upgrade of an old filling station at the top of the summit — both on Nevada County land.
So why would Placer shell out for projects outside the boundaries of that county? “A lot of the residents are Placer County residents,” Malberg said, “but they use the road and they use whatever’s along the road. It benefits both counties. Really, [Placer County has] been very generous. It all started with Nevada County putting quite an investment into this area plan.”
Another Placer County grant provided funding for the feasibility study of a future visitors’ center, which is on pause to allow for conversations about sustainable funding and maintenance. (In total, Donner Summit has received seven Placer grants since completion of the area plan in 2016.)
Then there’s the Donner Summit Public Use Trails and Recreation Facilities Plan, an effort to develop a guide for recreation in the area (also courtesy Placer funding). Kate Gray is the project manager for Stantec, the engineering firm pulling the plan together.
“We’re trying to figure out a plan where we can help implement different projects and give people the facilities they need to enhance the user experience up there,” Gray said, “but also protect the valuable resources we have.”
The recreation plan will look at opportunity for restrooms, a snow park, the possibilities of campgrounds, and wayfinding signage. Oudegeest was adamant that Donner Summit is not full of “NIMBYists,” that the community wants to show what’s there.
Malberg further defined the rationale: “There’s always a hesitation on the part of some who really like it the way it is. I might be one of those. But on the other hand, if you don’t put in the infrastructure and if you don’t help people know where to go and how to get there, you’re going to have them all over your property.”
A draft version of the Donner Summit Public Use Trails and Recreation Facilities Plan is expected to be complete by April. At that point, Stantec will hold a stakeholder meeting, receive input, and incorporate that feedback into the final plan. Once the final draft is up and running, the DSA will apply for grants based on different plan aspects — a new trailhead here, restrooms there, etc.
Stakeholders include county representatives, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the U.S. Forest Service, and Sugar Bowl Resort.
“Over the last five years, we have taken a very active interest in the long-term sustainability of Donner Summit,” wrote Greg Dallas, Sugar Bowl president and CEO, via email. “Donner Summit is one of the most historied places in [California] … and one of the most under-infrastructured places in Tahoe.”
Dallas explained Sugar Bowl has diverted funding specifically to address the area’s health and longevity, with special commitment to balancing conservation with recreation for future generations.
For the general store’s Paduano, an increase in amenities and opportunities will enhance Donner Summit’s community spirit.
“I’ve been working on the Soda Springs Area Plan and with the Donner Summit Association for so long to find ways to bring traffic to the area that is not related to ski season,” she said. “… We want to tie downtown together so there’s a little bit more going on and hopefully attract more businesses that would be complementary.”
Main Image Caption: SUMMIT VIEW: Efforts to improve Donner Summit include participation from stakeholders like the Donner Summit Association, Donner Summit Historical Society, Placer and Nevada county representatives, Truckee Donner Land Trust, U.S. Forest Service, and Sugar Bowl Resort. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink