The answers to the questions in Henry Loubet’s letter published in the Star on Dec. 26 stretch back at least for the 44 years that I have lived in St. Helena. Unfortunately, most are the same. Furious little bands of locals have paralyzed most city councils.
Except for the bright lights of a couple of administrations, we haven’t had the leadership needed to exhibit strategic thinking and timely action. In the interests of space, please let me just list the 11 most embarrassing moments.
1. It was evident right from the start that we were snake-bit. Back in the early 1970s when it became evident that St. Helena was going to have a marvelous and continuing influx of America’s Baby Boomers, who decided that they were going all-in on premium wines -- and St. Helena was where they were going to have that experience and spend big bucks to do it -- in two City Council meetings, the lead issue was keeping T-shirt shops out of town. (You can’t make this up.) We had hundreds of millions of dollars of future revenues on our doorstep and ended up debating the fate of a nonexistent T-shirt shop that might gross $200 a day. That started our drift away from strategic thinking and action.
2. Then we debated how to keep buses and trains out of town. The Napa Valley Wine Train as configured then had a total passenger capacity of 400 people. The best kind of visitors: they had enough money to take the train, they could pee on the train, they left their cars in Napa, and the train delivered them right downtown. Then the lies began -- led by the cry that all 400 would need to pee when they disembarked. That was a silly lie -- trains have restrooms. Cars full of 400 visitors do not. One mayor laid down across the track to keep the train out. A city manager stood up at a meeting to tell us that our retailers could not handle 400 visitors. Note we were always flogged by the naysayers with a full train of 400 on every trip. That’s not how visitation works -- some days there might only be 193 passengers or 87, or 132. No strategic thinking and leadership.
3. Then Napa County hired Purdue University’s research group to question visitors to learn of their experiences and desires for returning. (By the way, the surveys were repeated in all four quarters of the year to be sure we covered all the seasonal iterations.) One key response was, “You need some luxe hotels.” St. Helena missed that one completely.
4. And then, along came contractor Rodney Friedrich who was born and grew up here. He proposed a luxe hotel down at the south end of town -- to be 100 yards off the highway with many amenities to make it St. Helena-friendly -- like a big front lawn with a gazebo where town activities could be held. Guess what, his guest would stroll uptown to eat, drink, shop, while leaving their cars in his parking lot, and leaving more empty parking spaces on Main Street. Guess what, industry experts calculated an annual TOT income of $1 million from that property alone. Wow, times 35 years? Yep $35 million left on the table, because we had no strategic thinking at the top and nobody willing to pull the trigger. In an embarrassing episode, when Rodney was making his presentation to the City Council, his chart holder fell over and the audience clapped. The unruly mobs were out even that early.
5. In the mid-’70s, the residents of the Meadowood section above Meadowood Club, in the county, asked to be annexed to the city. Our water came from St. Helena, kids went to school in St. Helena, first responders were from St. Helena, we shopped and worked in St. Helena -- we were St. Helenans. We were rejected. Now the county gets that massive TOT income from Meadowood Club, not St. Helena. Another lack of strategic thinking.
6. Meanwhile, every other town in the wine country was planning to take advantage of the stated objectives by the county’s marketing team, “Visit Napa Valley.” They told us that they were going to promote overnight stays because those guests spend a lot more money. St. Helena was the only town to stay asleep. Investors laid low during that 2009 recession. But because other towns had shovel-ready plans to build luxe accommodations -- when the money turned back on they were ready -- and we were not. We still aren’t.
7. Three years ago, in the October Firehouse massacre, our unruly mob embarrassed our little town once again. It was a meeting to hear Requests For Proposals from three hotel operators for a luxe hotel on Adams Street. We were rude to them, some awful lies were shouted out, then the mob even turned on our own city manager. Left on the table, again, was $22 million that the hotel would pay us for the property. (By the way, a non-performing property on which we are paying interest for years.) And an estimated $2 to $2.5 million in annual TOT income. Left on the table, again.
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8. And we get to SHAPE -- a committee of locals assembled in late 2017 to note needs for improvement/replacements for city assets that were (are) failing -- and list city assets. Certainly a worthy idea. A news article reporting it included photos of a city building with wet spots where employees put their feet. Here’s true evidence that they got distracted -- and seemed to have missed their key mission. Just in the past month -- two years after SHAPE got started -- there have been a couple of equipment malfunctions that put our City Hall and all who work there at serious risk. Instead they veered off into a much broader scope -- a lot seemed to be just by accident. The city hired Kosmont Consulting to broaden a look at our problems -- including a downtown retail section that has fallen on bad times. Kosmont did some focus group studies, business leader interviews, etc. and completed their report. It had 23 recommendations. Some were “boilerplate” that could be easily put at the bottom of the “to do” list. Others could be logically grouped into about four categories.
The top set would be led by Kosmont’s key finding that we need a luxe hotel on Adams as the kingpin of this whole exercise. Instead SHAPE slogged along trying to address all 23 -- watering down the need to prioritize -- and think strategically! I have worked for some really smart and decisive leaders in my career, led by Ernest Gallo, the smartest man I ever met. I wouldn’t even think of going in to show him a report with 23 equal parts. He’d want to see them ranked -- and hear my proposal for handling the top three.
9. Even more recently two of our City Council members (who voted against an Adams Street hotel proposal) seem to be signaling that they will now vote to approve a hotel. Obviously bad timing; three years ago a simple “aye” at a council meeting would have delivered our most important need more quickly. Beware of the new political word, “small” hotel! How about a two-room hotel -- that’s really small. Small is a non-starter. We need to be smart and insist on a “right-sized” hotel, one that can deliver the key requirements for both the operator, St. Helena and our retail sector.
Look at all of the “Mother’s Milk” of local politics that has been lost because of unruly mobs: a local place to provide more local jobs. Locals can walk and bike to work, or carpool or take our local shuttle bus to work. Remember there are carloads of local residents driving out of town every day to work someplace else. Let’s give them a good job here. The luxe patrons of our new hotel will create more and better business on Main Street, creating even more jobs. What about our local students who are studying in the hospitality/culinary sector at three of our local schools – St. Helena High, Napa Valley College and CIA Greystone. A luxe hotel can be a keystone of externship jobs for these students as well as a resource to come and lecture at the schools -- bringing a world view voice to our sons and daughters right in their classrooms.
10. I was alarmed, when discussing an issue with a current City Council member, to be told that “there were consequences on both sides.” Of course there are -- always. There is no leadership in being stopped by that. Our council members surely should listen to both sides, do the research they feel necessary, deliberate -- and ACT.
11. The final ugliest consequence of St. Helena’s lack of strategic thinking and our procrastination: Our wine clock is ticking. Those Boomers who served us so well for so long are leaving this planet in ever-increasing numbers. They have been the vital prop to our one crop Cabernet Sauvignon concentration. That business is going away fast, maybe faster than the industry can adjust to in the short term. You can bet that every investor that hotel operators need to begin a project on Adams Street has a new note from his or her research department saying that Napa Valley’s wine business is looking more dicey that in the past 60 years. We delay at our own peril.
Here’s a little background that might buttress my notes above. I had a front-row seat during this time period. I worked at Beringer for 18 years where I saw the changes in America’s wine trades. When I got there, we sold nice bottles of wine for $7 to $10 a bottle. Not many years later that went up to $100 a bottle for Beringer’s award-winning Private Reserve bottlings. We had 250,000 visitors a year. Guess where they shopped and ate – St. Helena -- where my wife ran an art gallery for 20 years, during St. Helena’s “sweet spot” 1980-2000. You can bet that no one woke up in Boston one day, stretched -- and said, “Let’s go to St. Helena and buy a painting from Barbara Ryan.” But over the years, millions of Americans said, “Let’s go to Beringer in St. Helena and buy some wine” -- and they also came down the street to by a painting from her. They became friends of hers; calling to tell when they would be in town and inviting Barbara to have lunch with them. Lastly my son, Alex, went to school here, came back from college to work in the wine trade and is still here. His three kids were born in St. Helena.