Faced with persistent and accelerating problems of housing, infrastructure, and financial sustainability the City of St. Helena might do well to look to its neighbor to the north.

As part of our ongoing series interviewing local leaders, we spoke last week with Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning. Canning, who also serves as the Calistoga Chamber’s executive director, explained his city’s approach to these issues to the Star’s editorial board and we were impressed.

When asked about Calistoga’s problems, Canning said it was “housing, housing, housing, housing and housing. Oh, did I mention housing?” Beyond housing, the city’s other problems are a shortage of workers – he said Calistoga’s going to have 500 new jobs here in the next three years and no one to fill them – and infrastructure. At least these current problems of managing success are better than just a few short years ago, when Calistoga’s financial outlook was dismal.

In 2011 Calistoga had $16,750 in its reserve account and was, in Canning’s words: “one broken water main away from going negative.” At the end of this past fiscal year (June 30), the city had $7.5 million in those coffers. This year the Calistoga City Council has allocated an additional $2 million for improvements to infrastructure. That is one dramatic recovery.

How did the city go from $16,750 to $7.5 million? Part of it was an improving economy, part of it was the approval of two hotel projects, the Silver Rose on Silverado Trail and Calistoga Hills on Highway 29, just south of Lincoln Avenue. Voters passed two referendums to allow those hotel projects to go forward and Calistoga will have another 170 hotel rooms to add to its current 762 rooms by spring 2021.

The city has used impact fees from those hotel projects to buy two properties, one on South Washington Street, the other in the downtown area and has leased the land to developers to build new housing, including some for seniors.

After the referendums passed, the city’s turnaround began with a change in attitude, Canning said. Instead of sinking into woebegone helplessness, there was a conscious effort to make an effort, to take action. Faced with a difficult problem, it’s easy for city leaders to fall into “paralysis by analysis,” Canning said. The increase of awareness of the city’s challenges and the vote empowered and engaged more Calistogans to take an active part in its recovery.

Canning claims that people expect its elected officials to make decisions and that’s what the City Council does. Canning said the city spends $1 for “sexy” improvements, roads, sidewalks and other above ground infrastructure improvements for every dollar it spends for the below ground infrastructure, such as sewer and water pipes, which he calls “unsexy.”

But, beyond that, the city started holding public forums once a month, every third Thursday, where anyone was welcome. Canning attended, along with another council member and a city staff person, usually the city manager.

The chairs in the community room purposefully were set in a circle, so that people had to face each other and “were on their best behavior,” according to the mayor. Residents could speak their minds on any and all issues. Unlike city council meetings, where by law only agenda items can be discussed, these informal get-togethers allowed everyone to have a voice in a community forum.

The guiding principle, Canning said, is that decisions must be driven by the facts.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” Canning said, “but not to their own facts.”

And the reality of housing throughout Napa Valley is that fewer middle income people can afford to live here. Canning pointed out that situation comes to the fore when retirees and young adults can’t find a place to live near their families.

When your parents or your children can no longer afford to live next door, there’s a strong incentive to scrap NIMBYism.

“You can’t say, ‘We need housing’ and follow it up with, ‘but don’t build it in my neighborhood.’ You can’t have it both ways,” said the mayor.

The specifics of what worked for Calistoga’s recovery may not be an exact model for St. Helena. The board believes there is something we can learn from the experiences of those in Calistoga. We encourage our citizens, our elected officials and our staff leadership to consider these lessons.

We are especially supportive of our leaders establishing some version of the monthly Mayor’s Forum or town halls. With the August arrival of St. Helena’s new city manager, Mark Prestwich, we’re at the beginning of a new cycle in our lives. We are all in this together.

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