Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus

The Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus on College Avenue in St. Helena.

The small number of spring classes at the Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus are going ahead as scheduled, while the cooking school is going on hiatus due to lack of enrollment.

The food enthusiast classes and “edu-travel” programs in the campus’ culinary building are also going ahead as scheduled, according to college President Ron Kraft.

With the city of St. Helena eager to explore leasing part of the campus’ main building to use as a City Hall, Kraft talked to the Star on Tuesday about the status of the talks and his vision for the campus as an event and hospitality center.

“Half of the campus is unused and is planned to be unused for at least another year as we start to develop, so some presence of the city under a short-term lease creates synergy,” Kraft said.

“It’s very fitting that the college help provide collaborative structures, as long as it retains its integrity as an educational training center,” he said. “It could certainly do that while accommodating a collaborative effort with the city, which makes great sense to me.”

A temporary City Hall would also “add some life and energy” to the campus and generate income to develop it toward its next phase, Kraft said.

He stressed that formal negotiations are still weeks away. He will invite City Manager Mark Prestwich to make a presentation to the college Board of Trustees on Jan. 16, and the matter could come return to the board as an action item on Jan. 23. At that time the board could direct Kraft to enter into lease negotiations with the city.

Kraft did offer city officials what he called an “unofficial tour” of the campus on Dec. 27, but there have been no formal talks, he said.

“The city as a neutral third party decided to move forward with an unsolicited conversation,” he said. “There’s no negotiation because there’s not even an official inquiry yet. The city hasn’t done anything except decide that they want to approach the college.”

Not for sale

Kraft said the campus is not for sale, and even a long-term lease of more than 36 months “would be much more difficult for the board and me to lean into.”

The available space would amount to no more than half of the 10,000-square-foot campus. The college would reserve the use of the kitchen, its associated teaching and hospitality center, the art classrooms at the south end of campus, and the outdoor space used for events like the Napa Valley Writers Conference and Dia de Los Muertos.

The remainder of the main campus building – including the unused northern classrooms, the unused library that doubles as a polling place, and the admissions and administrative space near the entrance – could be available to the city for a lease of less than 36 months, if college trustees deem it appropriate.

Prestwich said last week that based on preliminary talks, leasing the campus could be half the cost of what representatives of the former St. Helena Catholic School had been asking.

Kraft said he told Prestwich that the college typically leases space “from $2 a square foot up” – compared with the $4 the Catholic school was asking.

“Whether we land on $2 or $3 or $4 or whatever – that would all be negotiation in the future,” Kraft said.

In the meantime, the campus’ four or five spring classes will go on as scheduled, with the possible exception of a computer class. If the city leases the northern classrooms, that class could be moved to another part of campus or to St. Helena High School.

A campus in transition

When it was built in the 1980s, the facility was intended to be a full-fledged campus. Enrollment projections turned out to be extremely optimistic given the Upvalley’s population and demographics, so the campus was eventually reimagined as a non-credit, community education center and a base for a culinary program.

After running the Napa Valley Cooking School for 16 years, Executive Chief Barbara Alexander left in 2018. The program switched from one year to one semester, and attendance dwindled to three students last fall, well short of the 13-15 needed to break even. No students enrolled for the coming semester, despite what Kraft called a “marketing blitz.”

Kraft said the trend is consistent with challenges faced by other cooking schools. He said demand has shifted away from programs geared toward professional cooks and chefs, in favor of training in more basic kitchen skills.

Ever since Alexander left, Kraft has been working on a new vision of the campus as a hospitality-oriented educational center offering community and civic events, food enthusiast and “edu-travel” programs, and student-catered wine, culinary, arts and musical events, perhaps in partnership with organizations like Festival Napa Valley.

“Those events would be served by the students we’re training (at the Napa campus) in hospitality, tourism, travel, business, culinary and viticulture,” Kraft said. “They could go up there for a lab space where they could work or do internships. That remains the vision to this day, and we’re headed in that direction.”

Kraft also envisions a tasting room pouring wines from the college’s estate winery.

With fewer than 20 students per week, the Upvalley campus no longer has its own dean. Lissa Gibbs filled in as interim director of the campus for a one-year term that ended last June. The last dean, Mechele Manno, went out on extended leave and is now returning to take on other assignments for the college.

“We’re not replacing the dean up there,” Kraft said.

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You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.