A year full of business news and city politics was ultimately dominated by a ferocious fire and a wave of blackouts that have become St. Helena’s new normal.
Here are the top 10 news stories of 2019, as determined by the Star staff and editorial board.
1. Power goes out as Kincade Fire threatens Napa Valley
St. Helenans learned the value of emergency preparedness as PG&E repeatedly cut power to parts of the city and strong, dry winds fueled the nearby Kincade Fire.
PG&E imposed its first Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) in 2018, but it wasn’t until this October and November that St. Helena felt the full effects of life in the age of wildfires. The downtown was mostly spared, but residents and businesses away from the city’s central core were without power for days at a time.
The hum of generators became a familiar sound in residential areas. Neighbors swapped tips on where they could charge their phones, buy a hot cup of coffee, and find Wi-Fi service. Generator-powered businesses like Steves Hardware and Farmstead became popular hangouts.
Thanks to favorable winds and strenuous firefighting, the Kincade Fire never directly threatened St. Helena, but the town was still shaken by heavy smoke, frequent power outages, and news of the devastation in Sonoma County. Emergency preparedness is now a fact of life for most St. Helenans.
2. City ponders future of City Hall, library
There’s a broad consensus that City Hall has outlived its useful life. The question is what to do about it. Building on the work of the SHAPE Committee, the City Council took up the matter in earnest this year.
In August the council asked a consultant to investigate four options, ranging from building a new City Hall on the Adams Street property to moving City Hall into the existing library and building a new library where City Hall is.
Controversially, rebuilding City Hall at its current site didn’t make the list, even though it was one of the options identified by the SHAPE Committee. Councilmembers say that option is still on the table.
The construction cost of a new City Hall was estimated at $12.8-$14 million, not including soft costs. Other buildings, like a multipurpose room/council chambers, also carry daunting price tags. In January the council will appoint a Financing Civic Institutions Task Force to evaluate the city’s options.
The sense of urgency picked up after a malfunctioning heater sent smoke billowing throughout the existing City Hall, forcing it to be vacated indefinitely.
3. St. Helena adopts General Plan
May 14, 2019 was the date when St. Helena’s never-ending General Plan update — the butt of jokes around Napa County – finally ended.
The approval of the plan, 12 years in the making, came with a sense of exhaustion. Everyone admitted it wasn’t perfect, but they were too sick of it to keep wordsmithing. “Adopt it now and fix it later” was the general consensus.
There hasn’t been any fixing yet, but the city is looking at a major rewriting of its zoning code to reflect the General Plan’s new policies.
The new plan contains additional protections for agricultural land, calls for pedestrian and bike improvements, introduces a mixed-use designation that would encourage housing downtown, and takes a more nuanced approach to tourism and local-serving vs. tourist-serving businesses.
4. City, schools respond to vaping epidemic
According to a survey, 23% of St. Helena ninth-graders said they’d vaped within the last 30 days. According to local health officials, that’s 23 percentage points too many.
St. Helena school officials say vaping exploded in popularity during the 2018-2019 school year. The district responded with new policies and educational efforts, but concerned students say their peers are still vaping.
As a deadly lung disease tied to vaping spread throughout the U.S., eighth-grader Reese Dahline and her friends formed Safe Students Against Flavored E-Cigarettes.
At a meeting with Dahline and local officials, Mayor Geoff Ellsworth and City Councilmember Mary Koberstein vowed to push for new policies at the city level that would either ban the sale of vaping products or require vendors to be licensed.
5. Dean & DeLuca replaced by Gary’s
St. Helena’s once-mighty Dean & DeLuca was a shadow of its former self long before it closed in July, as the chain surrendered to major debt and cash-flow problems. Nevertheless, its demise was met with sorrow by former fans of the high-end food and wine shop.
Spirits lifted within weeks when Gary Fisch, a Napa Valley wine buff and owner of a successful chain in New Jersey, announced that he would open his next Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in the former Dean & DeLuca space.
Sure enough, the West Coast’s first Gary’s opened in early October, evoking memories of the glory days of Dean & DeLuca.
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6. Notable changes downtown
It was an eventful year on Main Street as a few old favorites closed their doors and a handful of new businesses offered a ray of hope for a downtown that’s been hit hard by slow foot traffic, the rise of online shopping, and a shortage of qualified workers.
St. Helena said goodbye to Centerpiece, Cook Tavern, St. Helena Antiques, and Main Street Books. However, it also welcomed Richard Carter’s Carter & Co., Simon Bull’s Meuse gallery, Joel Gott’s Station, and Main Street Bookmine.
All four of the new businesses have a social media presence. Carter went so far as to call Instagram the key to his success. The popularity of Carter & Co. suggests that the biggest threat to downtown businesses – the Internet – might also be their saving grace.
7. Council briefly considers hotel on Adams Street
The easiest way to liven up a St. Helena dinner party – and maybe get a wine bottle thrown at you – is to take a position on whether the city should sell part of its Adams Street property to a hotel developer.
In April the City Council debated rather gingerly whether to issue a Request For Proposals to potential developers. A consultant said a 70-room luxury hotel on just part of the property could generate $2.5 million a year in annual city revenue, on top of the proceeds from the sale of the land.
That led to a standing-room-only public hearing in May, where residents made their case that an Adams Street hotel would be either the ruin or the salvation of St. Helena.
Most speakers were firmly against the idea, and a split council decided to back off while the city tallies up the cost of its needed infrastructure improvements, including storm drains, water and sewer lines, streetscape upgrades, and new city buildings.
8. Brenkle Court housing project breaks ground
The eight-unit Brenkle Court project took a modest but important step toward addressing St. Helena’s shortage or workforce and affordable housing.
The nonprofit Our Town St. Helena acquired the McCorkle Avenue property from the city for $1 and secured funding from Napa County, the Gasser Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, that still wouldn’t have been enough to make the project pencil out without the work of the future homeowners themselves, who are providing most of the labor for the self-help or “sweat equity” project.
Construction started in July and is scheduled to end in 2021.
9. Voters reject rent stabilization
Some residents of Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park wanted the city to pass a rent stabilization ordinance. Others didn’t. That’s when things got ugly.
The debate over the ordinance, enacted in November 2018, was spirited and sometimes bitter. Supporters said it would protect residents from drastic rent hikes. Opponents called it an unwelcome, flawed and unnecessary government intrusion.
Opponents gathered enough signatures to force a June 4 referendum in which St. Helena voters, by a decisive 60-40 margin, struck down the ordinance before it could take effect.
10. City, housing developer win legal battle
Brenkle Court wasn’t the only place on McCorkle Avenue where hammer met nail this year. The other was Joe McGrath’s eight-unit apartment project just down the street.
Unlike Brenkle Court, McGrath’s project was challenged by neighbors in a series of expensive lawsuits claiming that the city’s environmental analysis hadn’t been rigorous enough.
The battle ended in April when the California Supreme Court declined to reconsider prior rulings in favor of McGrath and the city.
McGrath said the lawsuits, which he defended entirely at his own expense, would force him to charge higher rents. With the help of a new ordinance, councilmembers relieved McGrath from bearing some of the city’s own legal costs.
In other news …
Other notable stories that just missed the top 10 included the delayed removal of the Upper York Creek Dam, PG&E’s abortive plan to install a pole in a St. Helena family’s backyard, and a Napa County Grand Jury report that criticized city government but was marred by factual errors.
Jesse Duarte's 5 memorable stories of 2019
Here are some of my favorite stories from the past year. They each got positive feedback, and they were a lot of fun to write.
Juan Sanchez is a local legend for his running exploits, but most people didn't know he was an illegal immigrant. It was a pleasure to intervi…
Grayson Capener was a blast to interview, and her stories of life aboard a 200-foot square-rigger reminded me of my beloved Patrick O'Brian novels.
Some stories are fun to cover and some are fun to write. This story, about a St. Helena Police Department crosswalk sting, was both.
Thelma Hermes' and Ramona Decker's stories offer a glimpse into the Napa Valley's hardscrabble pioneer days.