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Downtown vacancies topic at candidate forum

Downtown vacancies topic at candidate forum

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Some Napa City Council candidates would get tough on downtown landlords who let their buildings sit empty or don't make seismic improvements.

At a forum sponsored by the Napa Downtown Association Wednesday night, candidates for mayor and council were asked what they would do about blight caused by vacant buildings.

Three candidates for council — Pat Rogers, Jim Krider and Chris Edwards — said the city should consider a tax on long-term vacancies as a way of prodding property owners to get tenants.

The biggest downtown vacancies are George Altamura's Merrill's Drugs building on First Street and Altamura's Uptown Theater on Third Street.

Council candidate Mark van Gorder said he would take a different approach. A mandatory earthquake retrofit ordinance might accomplish the same purpose, while also improving public safety, he said. He would talk to building owners about their issues before deciding on a course of action, he said.

Mayoral candidate Jill Techel favored having downtown leaders go out and try to recruit needed businesses to fill vacancies.

Council candidate Joe Salerno, until recently president of the Napa Downtown Association, said his success last month in having landlords tax themselves for downtown marketing would go a long way to ending the vacancy problem.

Counting The Neighborhood antique store which is about to close, downtown has 54,000 square feet of empty retail space, Salerno said. Excluding The Neighborhood and Merrill's, the total is 16,000 square feet, he said.

Council candidate Rachael Frank-Clark rejected a vacancy tax in favor of a stronger effort to recruit more businesses.

Council candidate Dee Cuney and mayoral candidate Vincent Blake said the elimination of timed parking restrictions would help fill up stores. If the two-hour limit were lifted, "you can relax without having to worry about a ticket," Blake said.

Forum moderator Sam Schorr asked candidates what role downtown played in the community, noting that the central business district has been called both "world class" and "elitist."

Nearly every candidate used this question to pay tribute to downtown, calling it the community's "heart," "heart and soul" and "where the valley begins."

Frank-Clark apologized for once calling downtown elitist. "I was wrong on that," she said.

Krider said downtown needed to be local-serving as well as tourist-serving, but said the elitist label was a "misperception." "You're struggling just like everybody else to make a buck," he said.

Council candidate Gina Thirnbeck said downtown needed to make itself more "family friendly" so there was more to do than shop and eat.

Van Gorder was the only candidate to concede that some locals don't feel welcomed downtown. As a council member, he would work to make downtown work for everyone, he said.

Candidates were asked if they favored widening Jamieson Canyon Road/Highway 12 to four lanes and how they would accomplish that.

Rogers gave a strong no, saying Jamieson Canyon should not be widened until the major Interstate 80/680 intersection in Solano County is unsnarled.

Blake said he could support widening, but locals should not pay for it. Napa County should get the state or big businesses to come up with the money, he said.

Edwards said Jamieson Canyon should not be widened by itself. Rather, the county needs to adopt a comprehensive transportation plan that includes bus improvements and perhaps passenger rail several decades from now, he said.

Frank-Clark said last year's proposed half-cent sales tax election to widen Jamieson Canyon and fund other transportation projects had been too big. Leaders need to talk to community groups and come up with a scaled down plan, she said.

Krider and Salerno were enthusiastic about tackling Jamieson Canyon widening as soon as possible. It will never be cheaper, Krider said. More people will die if Napa waits, Salerno said.

Techel, who sits on the Napa County Transportation Planning Agency, said last November's Measure W advisory vote showed that 79 percent of voters want Jamieson Canyon widened.

Napa County needs to put a tax measure on the ballot at the same time as Solano County so that the money will be there to pay for widening the full length of Jamieson, Techel said.

Cuney supported widening, but said Solano County voters have to agree before anything can happen.

Van Gorder agreed that Jamieson Canyon funding needs to go on a future ballot. The challenge is to come up with a comprehensive transportation plan that most of the community can support, he said.

Thirnbeck said Napa should not be talking about widening until officials learn how landowners along Jamieson Canyon feel about the widening, which will affect their properties.

Asked if they earned a paycheck, Blake said he ran his own multi-media business, while Cuney said she taught part-time for the U.C. Davis Extension. Edwards works on logistical issues for a wine shipping company and owns a Charles Chips franchise.

Frank-Clark, a former school district employee, said she was now helping her husband in their small business. Krider said he and his wife own four Curves women's fitness franchises.

Rogers said she was a senior citizen who worked part-time for the Napa Sentinel. Salerno owns Piccolino's restaurant, while Techel, a council woman, said she is a consultant to Leadership Napa Valley. Van Gorder is an account executive with Huffman Communications.

Thirnbeck is a stay-at-home mother.

Mayoral candidate Harry Martin did not attend the forum because of a Napa Sanitation District event. Council candidate Brent Houghton also did not attend.

The forum was held at Wine Train.

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