Chris Canning may have stepped down as executive director of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, but he hasn’t gone far.
Aside from keeping his other job as mayor of the town, Canning has taken a job heading a new telecommunications company that will be based in Calistoga.
Canning’s new office is expected to be on the second floor of the now-vacant Carmel Gallery on Lincoln Avenue, next to Sugar Daddy’s. The building is currently undergoing renovation.
The new position started Oct. 29.
The company is to be called Illuminations Technology California, and the technology it uses exists in eight other countries, but is new to the U.S.
Canning said he is still getting up to date on the company’s technology, but one of the jobs’ draws was that it allowed him to stay in Calistoga.
“For me, the fact that there is a public benefit to it is really what made it attractive. The fact that I can stay in Calistoga made it even more attractive,” Canning said.
Here’s how it works: Illumination Technologies partners with local municipalities to build infrastructure for wireless companies.
In exchange, the telecom funds fire detection and warning systems, such as surveillance for earthquake and fire risks, that won’t cost the city anything.
Also, the city gets to dictate where the wireless companies put their equipment, “Otherwise, you could have three different sets of equipment,” Canning said.
Illuminations allows wireless companies to be able to expand their service within the city but also with infrastructure that can be created to look like just about anything.
“They can put it up so it’s disguised. It could look like a tree, a decorative lamp post, or artwork,” Canning said.
The company currently has a pilot program in Miami for public surveillance, but it wouldn’t make sense to put those kinds of cameras in Napa Valley. What makes sense here are fire and earthquake warning systems, Canning said.
The company is owned by Jorge Hernandez, a former Calistoga resident, now in St. Helena, and originally from Guatemala. Hernandez prefers to remain quiet and discreet, but the family is very philanthropic, Canning said. They were also displaced by the 2017 wildfires, but fortunately did not lose their home.
Tenure at the Chamber
Canning has been nothing if not a cheerleader for Calistoga’s business climate.
“I’m a positive person, I get accused of being the cheerleader. But if you’re not out there exhibiting, encouraging, and drawing out that energy, it’s far easier to just slide into a lull, and ‘woe is me’ attitude, versus ‘let’s fire it up, let’s go.’ You’ve got to do that at every level, at every opportunity,” he said. “I’ve seen a change in the community’s attitude, how we view ourselves and how others view us. We’re there now.”
When Canning joined the chamber in 2010, it, like the city, was in bad shape both financially and spiritually.
The chamber also had a “tough” relationship with the city, and the board had a “challenging financial and staffing situation.”
To prove himself and his intentions, Canning worked for the chamber pro bono the first couple of months.
“There was nothing illegal, but one of the first things I did was audit for financial management practices. And there wasn’t a lot of energy there. We’ve changed that now. We are the destination,” Canning said. “We don’t market to the masses.”
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Marketing is targeted to a specific type of bank account, regardless of ethnicity, religion, color or gender. “That’s what we’ve done since we were founded. We don’t want just more people here. We want more of the right people with disposable income.”
One of the biggest successes for Calistoga is the rising popularity of the Lighted Tractor Parade. It’s made Condé Nast’s top ten holiday events in the world, and is the single busiest bar and restaurant night in town.
In the town of 5,000, last year, 16,000 spectators turned out to watch the parade.
“We don’t even advertise anymore. We’re afraid to. We’re concerned, where do we put all these people?” Canning said.
Canning has also served on various boards up and down the Valley, and at the Sonoma County Airport, trying to build relationships, said Charlene Peters, marketing and communications director of the chamber.
“He is always immersed in the town’s culture and an advocate for businesses,” Peters said.
As for the chamber itself, Canning built an autonomous team that could work on their own. “He left us in good shape,” Peters said.
Overall, since he started with the chamber, the community as a whole is a little more proud of itself.
“We certainly hold our own against Yountville (which derives the majority of its revenue from TOT taxes), and we hold our own to Napa,” Canning said.
Canning likes to stay busy. But in wearing both hats as head of the chamber and as mayor, sometimes those roles collided.
In 2013, Canning was fined $3,000 by a state regulatory agency for violating conflict of interest rules when he participated in voting, as mayor, on new resort developments.
The ruling of the Fair Political Practices Commission concluded that because the developments could result in an increase of dues collected by the chamber, Canning could financially benefit from the growth.
Now that Canning has departed, the chamber will figure out a more clearly demarked role for the new executive director, Troy Campbell, which will give the chamber a little more stability, Peters said.
For the last eight years, Campbell ran Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, with 15 million visitors a year. He was also one of 74 applicants for the job.
“Troy should do very well and he’s well supported by a great team,” Canning said. “He has a great background and a good-spirited energy.”
Meanwhile, it’s a good time to leave, Canning says. The chamber’s financial situation has improved, as has the relationship with the city.
“They also have a great board of directors and a great staff,” he said.
“It’s a pretty special place. The enthusiasm for the town has rocketed, by people that live here, by people elsewhere in the valley, and by people who want to visit,” Canning said.
He also abides by “Mom’s first rule — leave the place better than you found it.”