After nearly two decades of dreaming and wishing, the city of American Canyon took what might be the first definitive step in the development of a town center Tuesday.

With Councilmember Cindy Coffey absent and Councilmember Belia Ramos Bennett recusing herself, the city council voted 3-0 to spend $50,000 on a feasibility study of potential uses for the old cement and basalt plant ruins east of Highway 29.

First opened as a cement plant in 1903, Basalt Rock Company took it over after World War II. The plant closed down in the 1970s.

“It’s a unique asset,” said James Musbach of Economic & Planning Systems, Inc. (EPS), the firm contracted to do the study, speaking of the ruins. “There’s nothing like this anywhere,” he said.

Some possible uses being considered for the structures include a trail head for Napa Valley Vine Trail; public access for the 640 acre Newell Open Space Preserve east of the property; virtual wineries; an outdoor amphitheater; a seven-days-a-week farmers market and picnic grounds.

Brent Cooper, the city’s Community Services director, said the restored ruins could “help define the city” and help make American Canyon more of a destination. The property is owned by the Jaeger family.

Envisioned as the core of a future town center, current thinking is to explore developing the ruins independently, given the current real estate market downturn. 

The city’s annexation of the ruins property was finalized this week. The annexation was part of an agreement on the urban boundaries of the city reached with the county in 2008.

Town center project developer, Terry McGrath, was on hand and sang the praises of EPS, calling them “the best of the best.” The firm was recommended by McGrath for the study.

McGrath said saving the buildings would be “incredibly complex,” citing the need for added infrastructure as well as renovation of the structures themselves.

“There are 250,000 square feet of ruins,” McGrath said.

McGrath also said there was financial risk involved for his firm.

“We are going to easily spend $500,000 to $1,000,000 in the next six months on pre-development,” McGrath said.

At this point the city has not committed to any money for the project beyond the study.

“We may have to walk away and say, ‘we can’t do it,’” McGrath said. “The preliminary indication is we can do it.”

Councilmember Mark Joseph expressed disappointment in the contractor selection process. Joseph questioned awarding the contract to EPS outright rather than going out to bid. 

The city is not obligated by law to go through a bid process on the study.

Joseph said the ad hoc committee that would be formed as part of the study could further negotiate the final price. He emphasized that he favored the project and wasn’t trying to slow it down. Rather, he said, it was about saving the taxpayers money.

“What could the city have saved with an RFP (request for proposal) process?” Joseph said. “My gut tells me we’d be looking at a less expense proposal.”

Resident Fran Lemos said she and other people were tired of waiting for development to start.

“This project needs to go, go, go,” Lemos said.

Both Vice Mayor Joan Bennett and Mayor Leon Garcia expressed confidence in McGrath’s selection of EPS. Garcia said it was important the developer had confidence in the contractors he worked with.

At that point the proposal before the council was for $50,000 with a $15,000 contingency.

EPS agreed to remove the contingency and Joseph voted for approval with the proviso that he sit on the ad hoc committee.

Both Garcia and Joan Bennett wanted the second seat on the two-member committee. Ultimately they flipped a coin. Garcia won the toss and the vice mayor will be an alternate on the committee.

Belia Ramos Bennett removed herself from the vote, she said, because her husband Brian owns the house where she resides and it is within 500 feet of potential town center property. 

She said she wanted to “avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

Lisa Lindsey, a member of the executive board of directors of Napa County Landmarks said the historical preservation group was eager to help. 

“There are historical architects on the board of Napa County Landmarks,” said Lindsey.

Last year the group had the American Canyon ruins on its list of endangered Napa landmarks.

Lindsey, an American Canyon resident, several years ago founded the grassroots organization Save Our Silos to work for preservation of the long vacant structures.

“This is exciting,” Lindsey said of the study, “something that I pushed very strongly.”

The study is estimated to take 8-10 weeks. Funds for the study were designated earlier this year as part of $190,000 city council budgeted for economic development.

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