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Justin-Siena seniors, from left, Joe Karch, Wriley Sedgwick Robles and Victoria Su model their program’s new two-piece uniforms.

Fire Recovery
Fire rebuilding challenges availability of Napa area contractors

Napa and Sonoma counties already have a rivalry when it comes to wine. Now the two counties will be fighting over something else: contractors to rebuild homes lost in the October fires.

Rebuilding the more than 14,700 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed in the North Bay by the October wildfires is a monumental effort that will take years, according to construction industry experts. Another looming problem is the shortage of licensed contractors who are available to do the work.

“It’s devastating,” said Tim Murphy, CEO of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange. “We expect this will be at least a decade or more for these communities to get back to where they were before the fires.”

The homes and buildings destroyed by the fires will be rebuilt, said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange. “The big issue is how soon.”

“The construction industry will be very robust in the next three years, easily,” said Mike Zimmer, the chief building official for Napa County.

As a result of the Great Recession, “the availability of talent was already stretched and is now stretched even more,” said Murphy.

“We lost tens of thousands of skilled tradespeople” during that severe decline in building, he said. “Not all of those people have returned to the construction industry in home (or) commercial building.”

According to Murphy, there are currently an estimated 1,500 licensed general contractors in Napa County, but not all general contractors build houses, he said. Some specialize in commercial buildings or schools. Plus, “They might have already work in the pipeline they are committed to.”

“There are not enough contractors or workers to accelerate the rebuilding process as quickly as we’d like,” said Woods. “And that’s a very bad place to start.”

“Most contractors that I know were extremely busy before the fires and then along comes the biggest rebuild project in North Bay history,” said Woods. “It’s going to be a long, slow process.”

He’s already been in touch with other contractor associations to see if his group can reach others who can take on jobs.

“We’re going to have to cast a wider net” to find workers, he said.

In addition to a lack of workers, a rush for materials could impact costs.

“There is a concern with that level of demand, it might cause some spiking in prices of basic building materials or the availability,” said Murphy.

“Rebuilding from a disaster like this is a going to require all the level best efforts from government to the construction industry and from insurers and material suppliers,” said Murphy.

“Do the local jurisdictions have the processes in place that allow for streamlined permitting and inspections? Are the local building supply houses and material providers able to mobilize and get enough materials coming into the area (and) not cause prices to spike?” asked Murphy.

Zimmer said his office was prepared to meet the demand for permits and inspectors.

“We believe we have all the staffing necessary and (have) additional agencies on retainer to bring in on at a moment’s notice,” said Zimmer. The county is also offering an expedited permit center.

Zimmer cautioned locals about choosing a contractor.

“The best advice is to make sure they are licensed, bonded and insured in the state of California and are in good standing with the Contractors State License Board.

The demand will likely draw developers from outside of the Bay Area or outside the state who specialize in rebuilding after a disaster. Some contractors will work on more than one recovery project, grouping the work for efficiencies.

“An individual informed us the other day they already have 14 clients” that he’s helping rebuild, said Zimmer.

“That’s not uncommon.”

Veterans honored at Napa ceremony

The Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, “America the Beautiful” – all were recited or sung during the Veterans Day Ceremony in Napa on Saturday. But, for veteran Louis Martinelli, the most touching thing that happened at Veterans Memorial Park was receiving thanks from a little boy.

It started with an envelope. There was a picture of a U.S. Army ship drawn on it – a stick figure aboard the ship was yelling “Let’s go!” while a gun stationed at the bow shot out red fire.

Inside the colorful envelope was a letter:

“Thank you for protecting our country and not only the bad people you have to worry about! Do you have to worry about sharks?”

“A little 5-year-old boy gave me this, thanking me,” Martinelli said. “It makes me emotional.”

Despite the fact that the boy was mistaken about which branch he served in – the Marine Corps not the Army – Martinelli said that receiving the letter and drawing was more meaningful than anything that was said during the ceremony.

“This is true appreciation of my service,” he said. “I told the mother, as long as I live, this will be cherished.” It’s the children who give him hope for the future of this country, he said. “They’re the ones that are gonna make our country great.”

Martinelli, 76, joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1960 after graduating high school and served for five years. Although he spent much of his time stationed in California, Martinelli was also stationed in Thailand.

“There were some precarious times then,” he said. If asked to do it all again, though, Martinelli said he would. “You appreciate this country when you go to other places in the world and see how they have it.”

His time spent in the Marine Corps wasn’t something Martinelli talked about much until about two decades ago. It just wasn’t something he mentioned; some of his friends didn’t even know about his military service, he said.

That’s different now that he’s in Napa Valley Marine Corps League Detachment 870.

“It brought back that old bond that we used to have,” Martinelli said. Martinelli said that the league has members from different generations, including some young veterans.

“I’m proud of the young people today in the service,” he said. “They’re all volunteers …. They’re like the great generation, they came when we needed them and we didn’t have to draft them.”

Getting to hear people’s stories is one of the nicest things about the Veterans Day Ceremony, where the community gathers to honor those who have served, Mayor Jill Techel told the small crowd as high school bands performed within earshot.

“There’s something magical and patriotic about bands playing down the street,” Techel said, referring to the Vintage High School Reserve Band Review.

Napa American Legion Post 113, which organized the observance, also celebrated the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I by having C.J. Bertagna with the post’s Honor Guard dress up as a WWI service member, known as a “doughboy.”

Calistoga American Legion Post 231 also held a Veterans Day ceremony on Saturday, which included speeches, songs, and remembrances by and about veterans. U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson was scheduled to be the keynote speaker.

Student musicians take to the street for 'Vintage Reserve' competition

Marching bands and color guard teams took to the streets of downtown Napa on Saturday to compete in the 28th annual Vintage Reserve Band Review hosted by Vintage High School.

Spectators lined down Third Street to listen to and watch teams from 19 different high schools from across the Bay Area, including Half Moon Bay High School, Hayward High School, and Livermore High School, compete in the parade portion of the competition.

Vintage High School hosted the competition, so instead of competing, they performed an exhibition.

“This is what the kids have worked for all year,” said Jan Knudsen.

Jan and her husband, Bill, were volunteers during the competition Saturday. It’s their way of supporting their granddaughter, Brooke, a freshman in the high school band. She plays the clarinet and, for the past two weeks, she and her fellow bandmates have been practicing until 9 p.m.

“It’s a lot of dedication,” Jan said.

“It’s just like playing sports,” said Brooke’s father, Tom Knudsen. “It keeps kids out of trouble.”

More than that though, Jan said, the students become like a “big family.”

“They bond, they have fun and they go on wonderful trips,” she said.

Parent Paul Nepo drove more than an hour to watch two of his children perform in the competition. Competing isn’t a big deal for the Oak Ridge High School students, he said, because it is something they do every two weeks.

Kristel Laurora, 12, of Fairfield came with her family to watch her older brother, Christian, perform.

“He’s really good and I’m proud of him,” Kristel said. Christian, a senior at Fairfield High School, has participated in band all four years of high school and has performed in the Vintage Review before. He’s currently the leader of the euphonium section.

The Vintage Reserve Band Review was scheduled to last until 9 p.m. with the second half of the competition, including a percussion competition and field show competition, held at Memorial Stadium on Menlo Avenue. The competition is one of six fundraisers the Vintage High School Instrumental Music Department holds throughout the year.

Napa seeks a prettier face on Imola Avenue

As Napa leaders try to create a brighter first impression for those driving into the city, their attention is turning first to a busy south-side artery: Imola Avenue.

Ground plants, trees, some hardscape and just over half a million dollars could beautify the gray and worn-down median strip down the middle of Imola Avenue, according to designs shared with the City Council on Tuesday at City Hall.

The makeover could become a template for the beautification of other so-called “gateways” into Napa, multilane roadways that carry the bulk of vehicle traffic to and through the city.

Construction bids are expected in early 2018, with work scheduled to begin in the spring.

Developed by Omni-Means – the Walnut Creek design firm also helping develop a trio of roundabouts to link Highway 29 to downtown Napa – the design concepts are meant to create a neater appearance on major streets in areas with the greatest visual impact.

In the case of Imola Avenue, the median plantings would extend from the freeway east to Coombs Street, a section that runs past the River Park shopping center and several gas stations.

Any center-line plantings on Imola would replace the current concrete strip, which is largely barren save for a few stunted pistache trees. Neighborhood residents also complained the lack of median trees, in addition to presenting a tired appearance at street level, contributes to distracting light pollution in homes to the north and south.

“When you walk into my house all you see is ‘liquor’ and ‘live well,’” said Curtis Sawyer, who told the council his problem has worsened since the addition of a new Rite Aid pharmacy at the River Park strip mall. “I see it from my kitchen table every morning, and it’s embarrassing when you’ve got friends and family over and the moment you walk in, you see all this from your couch.”

The possible fixes offered by Omni-Means include a divider filled with plantings and trees native to California, a median with more traditional landscape plantings, and a mostly solid alternative covered in pebbly “rock mulch” with cutouts for plants and trees, according to Scott Robertson, who leads the company’s landscape architecture department.

The city estimates this last, harder-surface design will cost $335,000 to install, about $200,000 less than the more plant-heavy versions.

Though Robertson predicted a rock-mulch divider would be easiest to maintain, that promise carried little weight with council members like Juliana Inman, who questioned the aesthetics of such a median on a busy thoroughfare.

“I’ve seen people in residential areas do this, and it ends up being a nightmare,” said Inman, who wondered whether such a center strip could become a magnet for weeds with no ornamental plants to crowd them out. “Is it really going to be easier to maintain? Or is a healthy ground cover, even a non-native ground cover, better for maintenance?”

Others echoed Inman’s sentiments in supporting the addition of greenery to Imola Avenue – preferably with traditional plants and trees in relatively low-water-demand versions – to put Napa’s best face forward where many out-of-towners are likely to arrive.

“To me, these are the things that help to define a community,” Peter Mott said of such entry points. “They’re designed to say we care that much more about the beauty of our community and how it presents itself, not only to our own citizens but to others.”

Only Councilman Scott Sedgley supported the rock-mulch version of the divider, cautioning both against excessive cost and excessive plantings he worried could compromise visibility and safety on the four-lane route. “Imola is there to move cars and people and bikes; it’s not a parkway,” he said.

Whatever form Imola Avenue’s new look takes, it may guide similar street renewal efforts around Napa. Future candidates may include Soscol Avenue’s commercial strip and auto row as well as Trancas Street, First Street, California Boulevard and Highway 29 itself – corridors suggested by Napa’s Public Works department two years ago.