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As the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce has shifted its focus toward marketing St. Helena as a destination, it’s become a more effective partner for public officials looking to enhance the city’s economic viability.

Now the Chamber is speaking for the business community at a critical time when a newly seated City Council is rightfully under pressure to increase city revenues to address its aging infrastructure and several long-neglected civic needs, like a plan for the Adams Street property and a new City Hall and police station.

At the same time, residents and businesspeople alike are clamoring for an organized response to the increasing number of jewelry stores, wine tasting rooms and art galleries downtown.

Rather than championing the laissez-faire approach as one might expect, the Chamber is acknowledging that the marketplace’s invisible hand isn’t going to sculpt a diverse downtown that will help St. Helena compete with the likes of Yountville and Calistoga.

The support for outside intervention, either by city government or by a merchant-funded Business Improvement District, was one of the more surprising findings from the Chamber’s new economic vitality report, which was based on focus groups with 33 business leaders and an online survey, limited to the St. Helena business community, that drew 113 responses.

The other key finding was that businesses recognize that St. Helena is in a dire revenue situation, and that generating more hotel taxes is the most effective, least impactful solution.

The Chamber stresses that the problem is one of quality, not quantity. Offering more hotel rooms isn’t as important as offering the upscale accommodations and neighborly ambiance prized by luxury travelers.

It might come as a surprise to St. Helenans that people don’t consider this a welcoming place. When Chamber President/CEO Pam Simpson mentioned last year during a Visit Napa Valley conference that St. Helena was trying to be more welcoming to tourists, she hadn’t intended it to be a laugh line, but she said it left members of the local tourism industry rolling in the aisles.

Changing the perception that St. Helena is unfriendly to tourists – rebranding the city, if you will – won’t happen overnight, as Katie Somple pointed out to us last week. Now the Chamber’s chair, Somple joined the board seven or eight years ago, and she’s watched it evolve into a less insular organization that’s focused more on touting St. Helena as a destination and enhancing its economic viability.

Chamber officials seem to be subtly suggesting that city government should take a similar approach. Kevin Dimond, a Chamber board member who’s one of the new partners in the Harvest Inn, said a lot of cities hire their own economic development coordinators to play matchmaker between landlords and the sorts of tenants desired by businesses and members of the community.

Dimond added that he routinely loses out on customers who opt to spend more money to have their events in Yountville. The sorts of criticisms you hear in St. Helena about Yountville – too plastic, too contrived – apparently aren’t shared by all tourists, who statistics show are much more likely to spend their time here than their money.

Of course, the solution isn’t to become Yountville, but rather to strike a balance between authenticity and vitality. We need to capitalize on our prized small-town character while addressing some of the problems that seem to be turning off luxury-level visitors: uneven sidewalks downtown, inconsistent sidewalks south of Sulphur Creek, stores that close before 6 p.m., a lack of public bathrooms, and a general perception that St. Helena doesn’t welcome tourists.

To its credit, the Chamber isn’t pushing the council to adopt a particular policy. It’s offering the report not as definitive, but as one piece of the puzzle.

Now it’s the council’s job, with the community’s help, to figure out how St. Helena residents want to address the problem, reconcile citizens’ priorities with those of the business community, and find solutions that would benefit residents, restaurants, retailers, hoteliers and city coffers without sacrificing St. Helena’s innate charm. The key word there is “now.” Not “next.”

The Chamber’s report is well-timed, with two new councilmembers eager to forge relationships and form coalitions between residents and the business community, as represented by the Chamber — which, it bears noting, endorsed the two losing candidates in the November election.

The council’s power is limited. It can’t force a shoe repair business to pay market-rate rents, or control who wants to take over key retail spaces like Goodman’s, which will become vacant in 2015.

But it can pass a General Plan, come up with a comprehensive plan for the Adams Street property, work with Carl Doumani on a luxury-oriented Mills Lane hotel project that respects the city’s infrastructure constraints, welcome downtown tenants who will generate sales tax revenue, and generally set policies that send the message that St. Helena is open for business.

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