In November 2008, Copia, Napa’s center for wine, food and the arts, abruptly closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy. Two years later, the property’s future remains as uncertain as it was then.
If someone were to slip inside today, they would find much of the building “exactly as it was when the doors closed,” said Kurt Nystrom, Copia’s former top financial officer.
The soaring atrium, the stylish demonstration kitchen and the 280-seat theater remain as they were, as if awaiting visitors to wander through or a movie to start.
Inside the Copia store, Cornucopia, which once offered gourmet food, wine, kitchen supplies and cookbooks, “It’s as if you could turn on the lights and start selling,” Nystrom said. “It’s like frozen in time.”
The center opened in November 2001, to much acclaim. Robert Mondavi, the legendary vintner, envisioned a celebration of the wine world, as well as the culinary, visual and musical arts. He put up millions of dollars in seed money to get the center launched.
Copia put downtown’s Oxbow district on the map, attracting other businesses. Today the still-radiant Copia building is surrounded by Oxbow Public Market and a cluster of wine tasting rooms, with a Ritz-Carlton resort awaiting financing before it begins construction nearby.
While Copia inspired other businesses and was lauded by the arts community, it struggled financially from day one, losing millions of dollars a year. Many locals never connected with the center. Attendance fell far short of goals.
Despite multiple efforts to revamp its offerings, the center fell deeper into a financial hole. When Copia filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 1, 2008, it had a staggering bond-financed debt of more than $78 million.
Although it’s been two years since Copia’s closure, hopes for a new buyer or tenant seem as frozen in time as the interior.
A new owner?
The property is owned by ACA Financial Guaranty Corporation, based in New York, which listed the First Street site for sale in October 2009 for an unnamed price. This past summer there were hints that a sale was in the works.
“We have been in negotiations with a group for a few weeks now,” Jerry Pietroforte of Alvarez & Marsal Real Estate Advisory Services said in August. ACA hired the New York firm to sell the Copia property.
“We expect those discussions will result in a sale of the property. We are aiming to close a deal by this fall,” Pietroforte said in August.
But nothing has been announced.
Pietroforte could not be reached for comment this past week. Ray Brooks, president and CEO of ACA, did not respond to interview requests. Joe Peatman Sr., Copia’s former chairman of the board, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In 2009, a group of local investors and businessmen, led by John Salmon and including developer Harry Price and Dorothy Lind-Salmon, formed the Coalition to Preserve Copia. Efforts to purchase or lease the building were not successful.
“We made a $30 million dollar offer (to ACA) that was abundantly fair,” Salmon said. “Had they taken it they would have been a lot better off.”
Salmon said he is “frustrated, like everyone in town, that the building is still closed. Two years is enough,” he said.
According to bankruptcy documents, Copia estimated the value of the property at $30 million in late 2008. In November 2008, an unnamed developer submitted a letter of intent to purchase the property for $37 million, but the deal did not go forward. More recently, in March 2009, the property was appraised at $24.9 million.
How badly does ACA want to sell the 12-acre Copia property, which includes parking lots, gardens and a two-story, 78,632-square-foot building?
The bond insurance company faces troubles of its own. In December 2007, the Maryland Insurance Administration took control of the management of ACA. The company was forced to restructure over heavy losses associated with billions of dollars in credit-default contracts backed by failing sub-prime mortgages.
“It is estimated the sale (of Copia) may take some time to consummate given the current real estate environment and local entitlement issues,” read second quarter 2010 financial statements filed by ACA.
“ACA has no incentive to do anything with building,” said Salmon, who believes that it’s cheaper for ACA to hold onto the building rather than sell at today’s depressed prices.
According to ACA’s second quarter 2010 financial statements, the trust that controls Copia’s assets has enough cash reserves to make bond payments until 2012, when ACA will have to establish a new loss reserve for future payments.
“They may stall until that date,” Salmon said. “It’s clear to me that they have decided that the status quo is better for them even though it’s costing the city of Napa a lot.”
Napa City Manager Mike Parness said the city has talked with different investors about re-uses for the Copia property, but could not be more specific. “We know who the players are. We’re waiting for someone to get the green light and move forward,” he said.
“We have talked to them about the need to tie in whatever happens at Copia to the rest of downtown,” Parness said. “We have a real interest in seeing that property become active. We just haven’t had anybody at that point yet.”
A number of other local interests have publicly expressed interest in the property, including George Altamura and the Culinary Institute of America.
In May 2009, CIA President Tim Ryan said in a bankruptcy court declaration that the school “is engaged in exploratory conversations with ACA Financial Guaranty Corporation regarding the future of Copia and the college’s potential interest in using some or all of the property for educational purposes.”
But as of this week there is “nothing new,” to report, Tyffani Peters, CIA spokesperson, said.
Napa businessman George Altamura has made two offers for the property.
“I’d like to make it a City Hall,” Altamura said. “It would be magnificent to have the City Hall there instead of having buildings all over the place. It’d be a win-win.”
Altamura said he hasn’t heard any news about his most recent all-cash offer. “I don’t like to see (Copia) sit like it is. That’s a bad mark on Napa,” he said.
In November 2009, rumors circulated that the Food Network wanted to take over the multi-acre campus, which includes demonstration kitchens and substantial space for food preparation and instruction.
“This story is not true,” Lisa Krueger, director of public relations at the Food Network, said at the time.
Keith Rogal, the developer of the Napa Pipe property, has been mentioned as another potential Copia redeveloper. Rogal could not be reached for this story.
Oxbow Public Market developer Steve Carlin and partners had high hopes when the market opened next to Copia in December 2007.
“We always thought that Copia and Oxbow would grow together and we would help solidify this district as a food and wine center,” Carlin said. But when Copia closed, whatever traffic the market was getting from Copia was immediately cut off, he said.
In addition, the public may have had the misconception that Copia and Oxbow had both closed, Carlin said. “We had to overcome the impression we were failing like Copia,” he said.
Oxbow Public Market has bounced back from Copia’s closure. By adjusting the mix of tenants, the market is increasingly successful, Carlin said.
Carlin, who created the Ferry Building marketplace in San Francisco, said it would be a natural for him to get involved in acquiring the Copia property.
“2012 is not that far away. It’s been discussed internally with my investors and partners. I just haven’t determined what the right use would be and how to fund it,” Carlin said.
Cantrell, Harris & Associates, a legal firm in San Francisco, administers the Copia liquidating trust. According to administrator Jim Cantrell, a part-time skeleton crew maintains the grounds and keeps the building heated and cooled. A private security firm and Napa police patrol regularly.
In July 2009, pots and pans belonging to the late cookbook author Julia Child were taken out of Copia and sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The more than 3,500 bottles in Copia’s wine collection remain in a climate-controlled wine closet at Copia. A library of more than 1,000 cookbooks and other tomes will soon have a new home at Napa Valley College’s Upper Valley campus in St. Helena.
The equipment and supplies in Julia’s Kitchen restaurant remain in place, Cantrell said. “There is a lot of great equipment there. Everything was first class and is in perfect condition,” he said.
Copia’s extensive gardens have been partially recovered by a group of local chefs, led by Ken Frank of La Toque. A large greenhouse and other exhibits were moved to Connolly Ranch, a teaching farm, earlier this year. A group of volunteers recently descended on Copia’s vineyards to remove the fruit to prevent the spread of the European grapevine moth.
Napa’s farmers market has returned to the Copia parking lot. In late February 2010, the bankruptcy administrator paid employees their final wages and vacation time. Copia vendors were paid pennies on the dollar for amounts owed to them.
A separate class action lawsuit was filed in 2009 by a small group of Copia creditors called Copia Claims LLC against a Sacramento bank and legal firm.
Copia Claims charged that the 1999 bonds funding the center were fraudulently transferred from one set of bondholders to another during a 2007 refinance. Copia Claims alleges violations of federal securities laws. The suit also questions a $71 million deposit transferred to an escrow account for the 1999 bondholders. After an initial dismissal, that suit continues in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
As for now, the occasional tourist with an old guidebook still wanders up to Copia’s front door, hoping to visit the food and wine center that founders had such high hopes for.