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in the spotlight
Napa roller coaster story goes viral: Disneyland designer reaches out to Napa inventor
  • Updated

After Napa’s LaRochelle family finished building their own mini-Matterhorn roller coaster in their backyard during the COVID-19 lockdown, they probably thought the project was done.

Oh, how wrong they were.

Word of their incredible creation quickly spread via a Napa Valley Register story, and the news of their roller coaster went “viral” — delighting readers around the world, including one very special man.

The Nov. 8 Register story got picked up by ABC affiliates across the U.S., “Good Morning America,” TMZ, Fox, People magazine, “Inside Edition,” House Beautiful, the UK’s Daily Mail and more. Sean LaRochelle, one of the inventors of the coaster, was interviewed by CNN and other outlets.

After the Register story ran, “I ended up getting a bunch of emails and calls from a lot of different outlets,” Sean, age 28, said. “It was kind of a domino effect.”

“We thought this was just a local thing,” said Sean, who is now studying at Clemson University in South Carolina for his masters in architecture.

“I didn’t expect this type of explosion” of interest, he admitted. “I have to pinch myself” to believe it’s real.

Readers have been inspired by the family’s COVID-19 project, he realized. “That’s been really, really cool and positive to hear.”

But the best call by far came from the person who designed the parts of the original Matterhorn at Disneyland – a man by the name of Bob Gurr.

Now 89, Gurr is said to have designed most, if not all, of the ride vehicles of the classic Disneyland attractions, including Autopia, Haunted Mansion, the Disneyland Monorail, the Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

Sean said he was blown away by the fact that Gurr wanted to contact him.

“He took an hour of his time to talk to me,” said Sean. “He told me about how he built the original (Matterhorn) and how it was not so different how we built ours, funny enough.”

Sean also got to talk to Gurr about Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company. “He shared some keen insights into that,” said Sean. “That was really cool.”

Gurr, who lives near Los Angeles, said he first heard of the Napa roller coaster via a story in the U.K.’s Daily Mail tabloid.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve seen people do little stuff but this guy is building a towering piece of stucco and engineered a track that works. I gotta talk to this guy.’”

“I’m fascinated by the creativity and smarts and gumption people have and Sean has all of that,” said Gurr.

“He’s going to have a great career no matter when he goes,” Gurr predicted. He has the smarts, the intelligence, the wisdom. Those attributes will fit any line of work and industry. He’s going to do really, really well,” said Gurr. “I sense that about Sean.”

In a bit of a twist, Sean’s brother Michael, the co-creator of the backyard coaster, was completely unaware of all of the hoopla. That’s because Michael is in the seminary in Nebraska and he’s “off the grid” most of the time. However, Michael happened to call home after Gurr and his brother talked, and Sean was able to relay the incredible news.

“He just started flipping out,” said Sean with a laugh. “I can only imagine what the priests said. He was going crazy.”

As a result of all the stories, Sean also heard from a recruiter at Walt Disney Imagineering.

“She told me that I had caused quite a stir over at Imagineering,” said Sean. “She gave me a lot of really great resources.”

“’We want to keep our eyes on you,’” she told Sean. “That was also really, really exciting,” he said. It would be a dream of his to work as a designer for Disney.

Sean’s father, Jacques LaRochelle, the man who kindly let his children build a roller coaster in his Carneros backyard, said he thinks the project is a good example of what you can accomplish as a family in spite of a worldwide pandemic.

“Let’s face it, 2020 just stinks,” said Jacques. “It’s nice to have some sort of uplifting story that maybe people can look at and say ‘that’s cool’ in spite of all the other stuff going on,” he said.

“Holy cow, I just did not think this many people would be inspired” by what they built, said Sean. But it feels great, he said.

“This world needs more joy and the fact that so many people are interested, it just lifts my spirit.”

He hopes to build more roller coasters, Sean said. “I know my brother wants to a do another one. So we’ll definitely collaborate again.”



Photos: Building Napa's own mini-Matterhorn roller coaster


Photos: A bit of Disneyland rolls in Napa
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Napa council narrowly approves 4-story hotel for Oxbow District
  • Updated

A lengthy and contentious debate over a future hotel in downtown Napa ended with the project’s approval by a single vote — but with the question of whether the project would overwhelm its neighborhood, or strengthen it, still unresolved.

The developer J.B. Leamer saw his proposal for a 74-room luxury hotel straddling both sides of the Napa Valley Wine Train line barely approved by a 3-2 City Council vote on Tuesday night, after more than three hours of discussion at City Hall. The vote followed the Planning Commission’s decision in July not to endorse the development, citing its height, bulk and the cutting-off of eastward views into the Oxbow neighborhood and valley hills.

Leamer’s project, which would occupy the southeast corner of Soscol Avenue and First Street, will move ahead with the builder’s promise to create 22 new housing units on Napa land already acquired by the developer, and set aside three of the dwellings for lower-income households.

However, the road to approval revealed a split between Napa leaders worried another hotel would become a barrier for local residents, and other leaders who emphasized its backers’ efforts over four years to meet the city’s requests — including the offer to create housing rather than simply paying Napa’s housing impact fee.

Councilmember Mary Luros was wary of a project she said risked cutting off residents from the Oxbow — a traditionally residential neighborhood that has become home to tourist draws like Copia and the Oxbow Public Market — and erasing whatever low-rise, small-scale feel remains in the area.

“That charm of the neighborhood is why we love the area so much, and I’m really struggling to see how such a large, massive hotel improves the charm of that neighborhood,” she said before joining Mayor Jill Techel to vote against granting permits for the hotel.

However, Luros granted that the hotel’s planners should not be held responsible for housing shortages and long commutes caused by growth elsewhere in the city — and other council members argued that doing so would unfairly target a builder working with the city in good faith and offering new housing rather than only cash.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put the whole burden (of the housing shortage) on this project team,” said Liz Alessio, who joined Scott Sedgley and Doris Gentry in support. “For them to contribute housing and offer this alternative is fantastic and sets a precedent for future commercial and especially hotel projects. I see that as a win, as we hopefully establish more clarity in what we require of (developers).”

Despite worries from councilmembers and residents about the hotel’s size, height and location, Sedgley urged his colleagues to accept the design as long as it meets the zoning rules of the Downtown Specific Plan, which governs growth in Napa’s core and marks the area as the city’s preferred tourism hub.

“It’s amazing that no variance was requested on this project, not one,” he said of the hotel project, which falls within the downtown area’s 60-foot height limit.

In 2017, the Planning Commission approved the five-story Black Elk hotel across the street at 728 First St. That project, which has not been built, would also reach 60 feet into the air, as measured from the sidewalk, not the bottom of the sunken lot upon which it would sit.

Leamer’s offer of housing to complement the hotel was a late addition to the plan, substituting for an earlier proposal to add 20% to his mandatory payment into Napa’s affordable housing fund. On Tuesday, Leamer told the council he intends to have the new housing complete and ready to occupy before the hotel is cleared to open.

Announced by Leamer in 2016 and originally branded Foxbow, the complex would include two four-story buildings on either side of the Wine Train, each containing 37 hotel rooms, ground-floor retail space and two levels of sunken parking.

Plans filed with the city call for an interior courtyard and private terraces, along with a swimming pool, spa, fitness center, conference and meeting space, and a cafe featuring a sculpture garden — all intended, Leamer said, to refresh a busy but underused gateway into central Napa.

“This is not just a chance to serve our community with a hotel, restaurant, spa and a rooftop bar; it’s not just a gateway or a landmark,” he told the council during a Zoom video call. “It’s a fresh start for a tired and blighted corner.”

With City Hall still closed during the coronavirus pandemic, Napa received more than 50 emails ahead of the council meeting supporting or opposing the hotel. Luros, in voting against the project, acknowledged sound arguments both in favor of and against the plan, and added that Napa has not made clear enough its vision for the Oxbow neighborhood’s purpose.

“We haven’t said clearly what we want in the Oxbow,” she said. “We haven’t said how many hotels are enough; we haven’t said if we want housing built instead of an in-lieu fee and if so, how much affordable housing is enough to offset the impact of the hotel. We haven’t created that detailed vision of what Oxbow could be.”

With two new council members taking office Dec. 8 and Napa developing a new general plan to guide land use through 2040, Luros held out hope for stronger direction. “Looking to the future, I think this is a great time for the new council to tackle these issues and work on our vision of what our Napa community should look like,” she wrote in a newsletter released Thursday.

Nonetheless, others like Gentry accepted Leamer’s efforts to work with the land-use rules as they currently stand, and to invest in a city struggling with budget cuts amid a sharp fall-off in tourism due to COVID-19.

“We may say all kinds of things in the future, but we’re here today to vote on this project or not vote on this project” according to Napa’s existing rules, said Gentry, who will leave the council next month after losing the Nov. 3 mayoral election to Sedgley.

“And quite frankly, I don’t know any other people coming to the city of Napa in this economy saying, ‘Oh, please, will you let me spend $100 million and build a building — and by the way, I’m also going to build you 22 units and three that are affordable, and I’m not going to ask for any waivers or variances.’”

“At this minute, based on the laws we already have on our books, this project has done its due diligence. … For today, this is a project we should approve.”

The housing tie-in for Leamer’s hotel complex follows a 2018 agreement that led Napa to approve a 253-room Marriott hotel in south Napa in exchange for housing to offset the addition of lower-wage jobs likely to increase commuter traffic.

Under the deal, developers promised to build a 20-unit apartment cluster on Old Sonoma Road, which the City Council approved in December 2019. Half of those units were set aside for tenants making less than 80% of the median income, with the rest reserved for renters earning no more than 20% above the median.



Photos: Stanly Ranch resort rises in south Napa

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Pfizer seeks emergency vaccine use
  • Updated

Pfizer formally asked U.S. regulators Friday to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, starting the clock on a process that could bring limited first shots as early as next month and eventually an end to the pandemic — but not until after a long, hard winter.

The action comes days after Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech announced that its vaccine appears 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease in a large, ongoing study.

The companies said that protection plus a good safety record means the vaccine should qualify for emergency use authorization, something the Food and Drug Administration can grant before the final testing is fully complete. In addition to the FDA submission, they have already started “rolling” applications in Europe and the U.K. and intend to submit similar information soon.

With the coronavirus surging around the U.S. and the world, the pressure is on for regulators to make a speedy decision.

“Help is on the way,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert said on the eve of Pfizer’s announcement, adding that it’s too early to abandon masks and other protective measures. “We need to actually double down on the public health measures as we’re waiting for that help to come.”

Meanwhile, the surging coronavirus is taking an increasingly dire toll across the U.S. just as a vaccine appears close at hand, with the country now averaging over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths per day — the highest level since the calamitous spring in and around New York City.

The overall U.S. death toll has reached about 254,000, by far the most in the world. Confirmed infections have eclipsed more than 11.8 million, after the biggest one-day gain on record Thursday — almost 188,000. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 hit another all-time high at more than 80,000.

With health experts deeply afraid Thanksgiving travel and holiday gatherings next week will fuel the spread of the virus, many states and cities are imposing near-lockdowns or other restrictions. California ordered a 10 p.m.-to 5-a.m. curfew starting Saturday, covering 94% of the state’s 40 million residents.

The Texas border county of El Paso, where more than 300 people have died from COVID-19 since October, is advertising jobs for morgue workers capable of lifting bodies weighing 175 pounds more. Officials are offering more than $27 an hour for work described as not only physically arduous but “emotionally taxing as well.”

The county had already begun paying jail inmates $2 an hour to help move corpses and has ordered at least 10 refrigerated trucks as morgues run out of room.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are at their highest level since late May, when the Northeast was emerging from the first wave of the crisis. They peaked at about 2,200 a day in late April, when New York City was the epicenter and bodies were being loaded onto refrigerated trucks by forklift.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out another shutdown and singled out El Paso county leaders for not enforcing restrictions already in place. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, likened the county’s chief administrator to a “tyrant” after Paxton won an appeals court ruling blocking local leaders from shutting down gyms and other nonessential businesses.

Friday’s emergency use filing sets off a chain of events as the FDA and its independent advisers debate if the shots are ready. If so, still another government group will have to decide how the initial limited supplies are rationed out to anxiously awaiting Americans.

How much vaccine is available and when is a moving target, but initial supplies will be scarce and rationed. Globally, Pfizer has estimated it could have 50 million doses available by year’s end.

About 25 million may become available for U.S. use in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine this week. Recipients will need two doses, three weeks apart. The U.S. government has a contract to buy millions of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, as well as other candidates than pan out, and has promised shots will be free.

Not far behind is competitor Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine. Its early data suggests the shots are as strong as Pfizer’s, and that company expects to also seek emergency authorization within weeks.

The public’s first chance to see how strong the evidence really is will come Dec. 10 at a public meeting of the FDA’s scientific advisers.

So far, what’s known is based only on statements from Pfizer and BioNTech. Of 170 infections detected to date, only eight were among people who’d received the actual vaccine and the rest had gotten a dummy shot. On the safety side, the companies cite results from 38,000 study participants who’ve been tracked for two months after their second dose. That’s a milestone FDA set because historically, vaccine side effects don’t crop up later than that.

“We’ll drill down on these data,” said FDA adviser Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

EDD puts millions of unemployed workers at risk of identity theft: state audit
  • Updated

The state Employment Development Department put millions of workers in jeopardy of identity theft because the labor agency mailed letters to people containing their full social security numbers, the state auditor reported Thursday.

The disclosure served up a fresh embarrassment for the embattled agency that has failed to promptly and accurately pay unemployment claims at a time of historic job losses amid coronavirus-linked business shutdowns.

“EDD has sent at least 38 million pieces of mail containing claimants’ full Social Security numbers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the state Auditor said Thursday as part of a scathing report regarding the EDD’s performance.

The results of that could be catastrophic, California Auditor Elaine Howle warned in a report to the state Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The state auditor noted that it had warned the EDD in March 2019 that it was exposing California workers to identify theft. The audit stated that the EDD has failed to take action despite the warnings.

“EDD has continued to place Californians at risk of identity theft,” the auditor reported.

In a response to the State Auditor, the EDD acknowledged it is facing difficulties.

“EDD is committed to protecting the confidentiality of our claimants’ information and protecting them and our programs from fraud,” the EDD wrote.

The agency conceded it is struggling to meet a January 2023 deadline that requires all state government agencies and departments to cease sending any correspondence that contains Social Security numbers, according to the auditor.

“We are admittedly behind schedule,” the EDD told the state auditors.

The revelation of a fresh crop of blunders at the state EDD overshadowed the regular weekly report on initial unemployment claims in California.

During the week that ended on Nov. 14, about 159,000 California workers filed initial claims for unemployment benefits, which was an increase of 1,200 from the prior week, government officials reported Thursday.

Nationwide, 742,000 workers filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week, up 31,000 from the week before.

California during the week ending on Nov. 14 accounted for 21.4% of all of the initial unemployment claims filed nationwide.

The EDD has faltered in its efforts to pay unemployed workers during the eight months of business shutdowns ordered by state and local government agencies to combat the coronavirus.

The audit raises a new round of unsettling disclosures about the EDD and calls into question the ability of the state agency to protect workers who are already beleaguered because they are out of work.

Even worse, the state auditor warned that the estimated 38 million letters might be on the low side.

“The true number of documents mailed with full SSNs is likely even higher because our calculation of 38 million mailings is based on only a selection of ten high-volume forms,” the auditor stated.

In March 2019, the state Auditor determined that the EDD sent out at least 13 million pieces of mail with full Social Security numbers in the correspondence.

The auditor recommended that the EDD remove by March 2020 the Social Security numbers from the state labor agency’s three highest-volume forms that the agency mails out.

“Although EDD made progress in removing SSNs from some of the forms we reviewed, it has not removed them from the three that it most frequently mails,” the auditors stated.

State auditors observed and photographed stacks of mail returned to the EDD that included numerous letters with Social Security numbers.

“EDD’s practice of including full SSNs on certain mailed documents has resulted in many individuals’ SSNs being delivered to strangers who may choose to exploit the inappropriate mailings,” the state auditors said.



Photos: Check out the most expensive home sold in Napa County in October.
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