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The goods on Gasser

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My question is who and what is the Gasser Foundation and when was it organized. Also, who are its members, can I join, and why does it have such influence on the future of Napa’s development?

I talked with Gasser Foundation President Joe Peatman and he chuckled when I asked if you could join the foundation. It seems the Gasser Foundation is not the kind of charitable organization that average Napans can join. Peatman said there are two employees at the Gasser Foundation, himself and his secretary, and there are seven board members whose job it is to determine who gets the funds. Peatman said these are coveted positions, as you can imagine. It would feel pretty good to be able to dole out millions of dollars to make the community a better place. On the flip side, it’d be pretty weighty to have to say no to anyone.

Peatman, a former county supervisor, said the only development the foundation engages in involves the land it owns. That includes a rather substantial tract bounded roughly by the east bank of the Napa River, Imola Avenue, Soscol Avenue and the Gasser Building, near the intersection of Soscol and Silverado Trail. The view from the back parking lot of the Gasser Building gives you a sense of how big and beautiful this piece of land is.

The foundation has plans before the city to build homes, retail and office sites, wetland areas to absorb Napa River flood waters — and a multi-screen movie theater near the existing South Napa Marketplace (another Gasser project).

Peatman told me the Gasser Foundation built the homeless shelter on Hartle Court. It took on this project because it was strongly needed, yet unpopular and unlikely to be paid for by taxpayer dollars. The land around it is leased to the county at a rate of $1 per year for 100 years.

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Peatman said the foundation makes as many grants as it can, about $1.5 million per year. Recipients must be local. In 2007 money went to a whole host of recipients — the ones I could capture as Peatman listed them were the American Canyon Resource Center; Voices, the organization that helps grown foster kids get their footing in the world; St. Helena Hospital; Queen of the Valley Medical Center; Hospice of Napa Valley; the Napa Valley Symphony; Community Action Napa Valley, which runs food programs for the needy; Hands Across the Valley and Copia. Gasser money went for job training programs, graffiti removal and to build a fish ladder to help fish get to their spawning grounds. Money went to Auction Napa Valley and to teacher stipends. I’d say a lot more of us probably have been touched by Gasser funds in some way than are aware of it. The foundation has been giving to the community for 17 years.

The Gasser Foundation was put in place by Peter and Vernice “Pat” Gasser, locals who saw Napa grow up and had a strong civic loyalty. Peter Gasser made connections at Bank of Italy — now Bank of America — and made his money through his vehicle dealership and smart investments. “Small town boosterism” and “taking care of one’s own” were a part of his upbringing, according to the Gasser Foundation. This is something he had in common with his wife, who followed her mother’s example of community volunteerism. Peter worked with the Chamber of Commerce to build infrastructure and housing when he saw a boom in Napa’s future. He spearheaded fundraising to establish the Queen of the Valley Medical Center and Justin-Siena High School, and pushed to establish Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Pat ran a salvage shop to benefit soldiers during World War II. That group became Community Projects, which to this day operates a shop on Franklin Street. She also was a trustee for the Queen of the Valley Hospital Foundation.

The couple didn’t have children and Peter “wanted his inheritance to benefit the Napa community,” according to the foundation. When Pat died in 1989, the Gasser Foundation was in place and their wishes were granted, granting many community wishes in turn.

The foundation’s influence stems from the Gassers’ history, the foundation’s current land holdings, the power of its charitable contributions and Peatman’s role as a longtime land use attorney and former elected official who has had a hand in many a Napa Valley project.

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