Jim Graham - Racing, tele-working, & battling multinationals


Jim Graham, AKA Ronjon, is Director of Marketing at The Satellite Telework Centers in Santa Cruz County, an avid Burning Man attendee who ran Media Mecca for several years, and Stock Bug class rally racer. He was one of the founders of the Felton Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW) movement that successfully re-claimed Felton water rights from the German multinational, RWE.

You were instrumental in your town's successful fight to recover its water rights from a major multinational. What happened with Felton and FLOW?

Our town water system had been privately owned since the late 1800s, but in 2001-2002 it was acquired by American Water, which was then acquired by the German multinational RWE. American Water immediately applied for a 78% rate hike with almost zero public notice. The town banded together to fight back and formed Felton Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW). We initially planned to fight the rate hike at the Public Utilities Commission, but quickly realized that it was so weighted in favor of big business that our only option was to take the water system back via eminent domain. We got a measure on the ballot to raise $11 million to buy the system. American Water fought dirty, as it has in other communities around the U.S. We were leaked a copy of their campaign strategy, which included using an ad agency to provide flyers that would go out under a co-opted community group and push polling to intimidate our local county Supervisor. We even had an astroturf group surface one month before the election that basically disappeared the day residents voted by 74.8% to raise the money. We eventually acquired the water system and now FLOW members consult with other community groups around the U.S. who are looking at acquiring their water systems from private utilities.

How long have you lived in Felton? What brought you there?

I've been in Felton since '91. I was born and raised in a small agricultural town, Hollister. After a stint as a reporter in Washington, D.C., I got tired of the snow and humidity and came back. Hollister had grown to something like 30,000 people. Too big! I eventually found a place in Felton and haven't looked back.

It always fascinates me how much energy is spent on online communities. Community to me is talking to someone at the grocery store, sitting in a meeting at the town hall or being involved in a community project. Maybe because I'm older, but the IRL stuff is a lot more interesting. That being said, I'm also mayor of pretty much every business in Felton.

As a co-working entrepreneur, how has the landscape of work changed with respect to location? Tell me a bit about co-working and The Satellite.

Some people are saying we'll all be freelancers within a decade. I don't buy that, but I am seeing a lot of people wanting more flexibility in where and when they work. Co-working facilities are opening everywhere and I think that's great, particularly for independent contractors and some start-ups. Where we're different is that we're going into small towns that surround large metropolitan areas, building professional office space in established commercial districts and renting it to telecommuters, home-based business owners and consultants. Where co-working spaces emphasize collaboration, we find our members do their collaboration with coworkers and clients somewhere else and come to us for the quiet, uninterrupted time they need to get their work done.


How did you end up involved in off-road racing? Would you talk a bit about Desert Dingo and your efforts in the Baja 1000?

Back in December 2006, I'd rented "Dust to Glory", a documentary on the 2003 Baja 1000. Ten minutes into it I turned to my wife and said, "I've got to do this." She said, "You don't know anything about cars." And I said, "I don't care." Eleven months later we went off the start line in a '69 VW Beetle. We lasted 144 miles. We were total n00bs.

The thing about the 1000, particularly for us in the Stock Bug class, is it's not about speed, but survival. I cold-called Eric Solorzano, who has 42 Baja wins, including nine Baja 1000s and said "You don't know me from Adam, but I want to race, you're the best at it and I want to meet you." He ended up building our engine and helping us tune the suspension, which is key. Now I'm working on convincing him to retire, because I think it's the only way we can beat him.

The greatest challenge racing Baja is communications. Race radios are pretty much useless unless you've got line-of-sight. Everyone has satellite phones and it can take half an hour or more to get a call through. One of our sponsors, EMS Sky Connect, loans us communications and tracking system called Rugged Text and Track, that allows my wife, sitting in front of several laptops back in California, to track the car and our three chase trucks - and communicate with them - in real time. It came in handy when I broke my leg getting out of the car during the race in 2009.

We were one of two teams (the other being Robby Gordon) using Twitter during the race in 2008. Last year was our first with the satcomm system. This year, I want a UAV.

Two guys on the team have Type 2 diabetes and many of the rest of us, myself included, have a history of the disease in our families. We partnered with the International Diabetes Federation to raise money for their education and awareness programs. We're the official World Diabetes Day race car of the 1000. We also hand out thousands of hero cards that have a photo of the car on the front and the warning signs of diabetes printed on the back in English or Spanish.

We're first in Class in the VORRA series and are racing this coming weekend in Reno. This will be our fourth attempt at the Baja 1000 in November and our goal this year is to finish.

What is your relationship with Burning Man. Are you still a passionate attendee? Do you maintain a Burning Man storage shed?

The joke has always been if you ever want to go camping, borrow gear from a burner because they've got everything and it's only used once a year. My first year was '96 when I got to shoot a fully automatic machine gun and toss homemade hand grenades. I ran Media Mecca for seven years when we'd have 300+ media outlets at the event. Now I head out with a Camelbak and a sleeping bag and mooch off of friends. Sure the event has changed, but I still recommend folks go out at least once. If you want to go to something that never changes, there's always Disneyland. I have tremendous respect for the artists and everyone who volunteers to make it happen each year. I still volunteer on the fringes, but for the most part, I'm your consummate spectator.

So, you live among the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, you fought for Felton's water rights, and yet you seem to deeply enjoy deserts. Is there a common, maybe archetypal thread that connects the two?

Big cities don't do much for me. We live in the redwoods at the end of a potholed dirt road. Our dogs get skunked. I wake up to deer eating my freaking roses. I even saw a chupacabra once. We're within driving distance of the ocean, the mountains and the desert. I never take that for granted for a second. I've been very fortunate in life and when I can, I try to give a little back.

If you had one thing to say to Santa Cruz County, what would it be?

Pffft. No one listens to me :).