The west end of First Street is turning into downtown Napa’s newest, hippest zone for dining and wine tasting, with a growing buzz at night that may someday match Main Street’s restaurant row. 

Despite Napa’s lingering economic doldrums, businesses are filling two new commercial developments — Napa Square and the Avia hotel complex — with spillover into Napa Town Center.

Shops that have either opened or soon will include a wine bar, a toy store, an art gallery and a kitchen store. Owners say they want to be part of the action generated by two new restaurants: the Norman Rose Tavern and Oenotri, and five-story Avia hotel.

“I’ve gotten more local recognition and exposure in the last two weeks than the last four years,” said John Anthony Truchard, owner of the John Anthony Tasting Lounge, which opened July 1 on the first floor of the Avia building.

Truchard said he’s been doing so well with his first retail venture that he’s already making plans to lease an additional retail space next door to create a “barrel room” for tastings and events. 

During his first week, Truchard experimented with staying open until 2 a.m. To his surprise, the late night hours were a hit.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I have been in there at 

1 a.m. and people are buying wine. And they have a smile on their face,” he said.

While traditional wineries are closed at nights, 80 percent of his sales come after 6 p.m., he said. “Next to the hotel, it works.”

Michael Gyetvan, co-owner of the Norman Rose Tavern that opened in December, credits the Avia hotel with energizing the west end of First. 

“Avia is a hip hotel for downtown Napa,” Gyetvan said. “From our observation, (Avia guests) are a younger crowd, and they want to go out and have a good time. They are flooding out into the downtown.”

Lynn Campagna is relocating her business, Napa Valley Kitchen Gallery, from Lincoln Avenue to Napa Square, with an early 2011 planned opening.

Until now, “local people like myself were priced out” of downtown, she said. When rents dropped, she jumped at the chance to move.

“I see that area developing into a little bit of a hipper, younger mix of people. It’s happening on that end,” Campagna said. 

“We need to create the ambiance of what people expect downtown (to be),” Campagna said. “And we’re getting there. We’re headed in the right direction.”

As part of her kitchen equipment store, Campagna’s will install a full kitchen for demonstrations, classes and guest chefs.

Gordon Huether, an artist and city planning commissioner, plans to open an art gallery in Napa Square on  Aug. 21. 

“I’m putting my money and mouth where my heart is,” Huether said. “It’s one thing to talk about getting something done downtown, but it’s quite another to put your own skin in the game.” 

Huether said his venture into downtown has a lot to do with his new landlord, Harry Price, and others “who are willing to take risks and have vision.” 

A decrease in rents was another significant factor, he said. “Had there not been an economic crisis, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to move downtown.”

While excited about opening a second gallery, Huether said his enthusiasm remains tempered with reality. “I make really expensive things that nobody needs,” he said. “I hope Napa is ready for that.” 

Renee Fannin just opened Napa’s newest toy store, the Napa Valley Toy Company, located in Napa Town Center, across Franklin Street from Avia.

Fannin and her spouse, Lisa Fannin, already own a toy store in St. Helena, but decided to expand. After considering retail space in Yountville, Fannin visited downtown. 

“I came down here and I fell in love with this corner space. I knew this would make a good toy store,” Renee Fannin said.

Fannin said she feels a strong energy on the west end of First. “There are people out from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” she said. “It feels trendy in the evening down here. It feels like a place you want to be.” 

In December, Michael Gyetvan and his partner, Christine Gyetvan, opened the Norman Rose Tavern. Business has been very good, with the Avia hotel bringing a steady stream of tourists to downtown, he said. 

Noting that downtown has plenty of dining choices, Gyetvan wants to see more retail. “If you go shopping, unfortunately, you are not doing much of it in downtown Napa, especially for clothing. I think it’s a matter of one or two stores that people would recognize that would trigger it. Then it would snowball.”

Developer Jeff Doran, who has been trying to lease retail space on the ground floor of the Avia hotel, said the last two years were “extremely difficult.”

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“We’ve seen a 30 percent drop in rents,” Doran said. But with that drop, leasing interest rose.

“I’ve had more calls in the last 10 weeks than in the last three years,” Doran said. Potential tenants include restaurants, a hair salon and coffee bars.

According to Doran, the recession changed the whole tenant base. These days there is less interest in retail and more interest in “lifestyle” businesses like wine and restaurants. 

Tyler Rodde and his partner, Curtis Di Fede, recently opened Oenotri restaurant in Napa Square. The restaurateurs spent more than six months putting together a lease with Napa Square developers. 

“It was definitely an unproven neighborhood of downtown Napa,” Rodde said. But after watching next-door neighbor Norman Rose open first, and flourish, “it made us feel like we did make the right decision.”

Rodde said he’d like to see more retail downtown as well as more lodging. “It can’t just be dining, nightlife and wine bars; we need more hotel rooms,” he said. 

Two years ago, Napa Square lease rates topped out at $3 a square foot plus 75 cents a square foot for taxes, maintenance and insurance. Today, the base rate is $2.50.

Lower rates are enticing new tenants, Cathy D'Angelo Holmes of Coldwell Banker Commercial said.

D'Angelo Holmes has one last space to lease at Napa Square. “Pretty soon, the premium spaces will be gone. In six months there will be 10-year leases on these properties,” she said.

While she would like to bring more retail to downtown, D’Angelo Holmes said she was “being bombarded with (calls) from restaurants and tasting rooms. There is a lot of profit in food and wine. It’s harder in the retail world to make a profit. You can go on the Internet and buy anything retail. But you can’t buy a glass of wine and good conversation on the Internet.”

Rodger Heggelund of Napa Square developer CDI said he and his partners originally planned to fill retail spaces with primarily women’s boutiques. But when the economy caused interest from national chains to evaporate, he turned his focus to wine and restaurants. 

“We want (downtown) to go to the next step” and include more retail shops, he said. “Tourists like to shop. It’s going to happen. It takes one deal at a time and then one builds off another.”

Will the new energy on the west end of First help landlords attract tenants for empty spaces in the middle blocks of First? “I hope so,” D'Angelo Holmes said.

“I’m not going to be the only landlord in town getting more calls,”  Doran said. “Oftentimes out of chaos comes opportunity and other landlords will embrace that.” 

Downtown is still a work in progress, Huether said. “You still can’t buy a book or a toothbrush downtown. I think we have a ways to go.” 

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