Skip to Main Content
Chico State

Planning a New Paradise

Marketing students tackle various marketing-related issues focused on the rebuilding of Paradise after the Camp Fire.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Students in Seminar in Strategic Marketing class (MKT 673) taught by Katie Mercurio, attack various marketing related issues focused on the rebuilding of Paradise on Thursday, October 10, 2019 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

Editor’s Note: As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, we are honoring its impact on our community with a series of stories embracing the themes of remembrance, recovery, and resurgence.

Paradise was home to more than 26,000 people before November 8, 2018, when the Camp Fire ripped through it and surrounding communities, leaving behind devastation, death, and crushing uncertainty. Reduced to less than 5,000 residents today, a mere fraction of houses and businesses now stand in the still-charred remnants, serving as both a ghostly reminder of what the town once was and as pillars of hope for its future.

Talk of rebuilding and repopulating Paradise has been fervent and constant even before the fire was tamed. Now, upon the first anniversary of the tragedy, finance and marketing professor Katie Mercurio’s graduate class, “Seminar in Strategic Marketing,” is joining the conversation and putting forth their efforts to help write the next chapter in Paradise’s history.

As part of a semester-long project, Mercurio’s MBA students have partnered with the not-for-profit Rebuild Paradise Foundation to help survey and assess the best courses of action to bring residents and businesses back to the town—an endeavor she started planning almost immediately after the fire broke.

“I wanted to find some way that I could help, and I also wanted it to be a learning opportunity for my students,” Mercurio said. “I had initially really wanted to do something in that spring term right after, but nobody was in the mindset yet of being ready to work with a group of students to solve their problems.”

Mercurio remained determined, and she saw an opportunity in March when she attended a colleague’s class to hear Charles Brooks (Business Administration, ‘03), executive director of the Rebuild Paradise Foundation, speak to students about his own evacuation story and what his nonprofit foundation aimed to accomplish.

Established just weeks after the Camp Fire began its path of destruction, Rebuild Paradise Foundation is working to develop long-term recovery resources that can incentivize, attract, and retain residents and businesses today and years into the future. They are partnering with Rebuild North Bay, which is leading Sonoma and Napa Counties through their own recovery after devastating 2017 wildfires, to see how disaster-affected regions can restore once-vibrant communities.

The challenges for rebuilding and recovery are many, ranging from economic challenges due to a displaced tax base to damaged or challenging infrastructure to fears for future fire activity. And yet, Paradise still has so much to offer and potential for the future.

“I had constant questions of what we could do, how we can help them, all of that,” Mercurio said. “I met with him afterwards and [told him] what I’ve done at other institutions, where we work as a consulting group and do free research. … Luckily, he was incredibly receptive.”

A female teacher lectures in front of her students with a projector lit behind her.
Katie Mercurio teaches her graduate marketing students various techniques to help tackle the marketing-related issues centered around the rebuilding of Paradise.

It’s only natural to work with his alma mater on this project, tapping the enthusiasm and expertise of its students and faculty, Brooks said.

“My professors were all about relationships, networking, meeting people, being in the community, and giving back,” he said. “And that’s what carries you through in your profession.”

Mercurio and Brooks formulated the project over the summer and came up with a plan. Students were divided into groups and given core responsibilities based on the foundation’s needs.

Because financial and other support will be so critical to recovery, the first group identifies which donors to reach out to and how to retain them, said second-year graduate student Natalie Valenzuela, noting that donors can provide services such as architectural or engineering expertise for rebuilding.

“[Group 2] basically vets projects to figure out which are going to be most beneficial for the foundation, because it’s getting thrown a lot of different opportunities, donors, and ideas,” Ellen Falltrick, a second-year graduate student, said. “[We put] together a system where they can plug it in, score projects based on risk and how well it’s going to affect who they’re trying to help, and then choose the best one to allocate resources to.”

A third group is finding out who the target marketing group should truly be. Using surveys, they are trying to identify who still in Butte County is looking to move back, how they were displaced, and what differences there are between those who are willing to rebuild and those who are not.

A male student listens intently to an academic lesson, while his classmates around him do the same.
“We can do something that actually might help Paradise, even if it’s small,” Oziel Magana (center) said.

“We’re looking at certain economic factors that would determine whether or not they want to actually [return] … and also understanding the sensitivity of it as well and really how we’re going to position a message about rebuilding and moving back to Paradise,” said Oziel Magana, a second-year graduate student.

Sensitivity is key in this respect, Mercurio said. Having moved to Chico in August 2018, and with most of her students not being from Paradise, she reminds the class to be mindful to balance the importance of their work with the fact people are still mourning.

“They’re trying to have this human element and the human empathy for all the people that they’re working with, yet still remain detached and be market researchers, which is incredibly difficult,” she said, “but that’s how it has to be.”

Mercurio noted that their perspective as outsiders could potentially be an advantage because they don’t have emotional ties to history and can think boldly about the future.

“They may be able to see what Paradise could be rather than just doing an exact copy of what it was in the past,” she said.

Respecting the weight of emotions a project like this carries, the students in Mercurio’s class agree they value this experience and feel privileged to be part of something of such great importance.

“You know you’re putting some positive [work] out there,” Magana said. “We can do something that actually might help Paradise, even if it’s small.”