This letter is a culmination of observations and conversation that I have had with various people from our town of St. Helena.
Last year, the grape harvest for the Napa Valley totaled nearly $730 million, a very big number indeed. In that same year, Napa Valley tourist income soared to nearly $2 billion, more than two and a half times the total grape harvest.
Yet, there is a voice in our town that says we are not, and do not want to be, a tourist town. We can no more say that, than we could say “We’re not a farming community.” It’s absurd. About three million people visit Napa Valley each year.
Many of these same voices say, “We want to keep our town the way it is.” That’s not a very good idea, because our ability to stay what we are is not possible without growth. In fact, “who we are” is beginning to erode right in front of our eyes. As some groups fight to preserve the character of our town by saying 'no' to everything and treating people who want to invest in our town like unwanted guests, the very fabric of our community is disappearing, slowly but tangibly.
One of the largest challenges we have is that our neighbors in Calistoga, Yountville and Napa have had investors pump hundreds of millions of dollars into their towns to make them better for business and consequently their citizens. We, on the other hand, can’t even have a proper sidewalk on Main Street where people don’t trip and fall on a regular basis.
As the families that make up our community continue to cash out of their homes and move elsewhere, or simply can’t afford $3,000 rent, the very fabric of our town is eroding. As the people continue to trickle out and second home buyers continue to come in, there are simply fewer people living here on a daily basis to support our stores, churches, community groups and schools. Without families and full-time residents to shop here, there will be no need for schools; without families here there will be no need for Sunshine, Safeway, Smith’s or Vasconi’s.
While the attractiveness of St. Helena continues to fuel rising home prices, that in and of itself does not mean we are a successful community. It simply means we have an awesome place to live over which we are given stewardship to protect and responsibly manage. Who could not stop by this town and think that this is one of the greatest places on the planet to call home? However, what will it look like when all the stores are gone and the schools closed and the churches quiet? It will look great every third weekend when the second-home-buyers show up, but what they are coming to enjoy will be a skeleton of what they first found to be the feel of the town.
We need to embrace the opportunities we have, and support our existing businesses and community by building multi-family housing, approving another hotel (Ted Hall’s looks good) and welcoming new businesses into town. Right now, if you want to open a dress shop, you must first pay a non-refundable $5,500 for an application to have a public hearing and wait two months for possible approval (or appeal).
Let’s update our antiquated zoning that currently includes permitted uses of tobacconist, video rental store, newsstand and other obsolete retail uses. We could easily add uses that are more in keeping with the times that would add vibrancy and diversity to our town. Let’s roll up our sleeves, put on our thinking caps, extend an olive branch and start working together to take ideas and businesses interested in our town and figure out how to make them work instead of just dismissing them part and parcel.
And if we don’t open our eyes and engage the tourists, welcome the businesses and add a hotel or two, soon the store fronts on Main Street will be as quiet as some of the streets of our neighborhoods.
Change is inevitable. Let’s help shape our town the best way possible.