The downtown storefront that once housed the Napa Firefighters Museum will pass into a local developer’s hands, despite passionate pleas to the city to let a local bookseller buy it instead.
A $2.3 million, all-cash offer by Michael L. Holcomb on the building at 1201 Main St. gained City Council approval Tuesday afternoon. Holcomb, who has announced plans to convert it into a high-end sports bar, partnered with the developer Barry McComic to outbid two other candidates — a dance studio operator and the nearby Napa Bookmine.
Plans filed with the city call for the addition of a second level with a bar and rooftop garden, as well as a staircase and elevator. Work is expected to last 12 to 18 months, according to Jennifer LaLiberte, the city’s economic development manager.
The former museum had belonged to Napa’s since-dissolved redevelopment agency and had been bought using federal funds four decades ago, so city officials said state and federal laws bound them to accept the highest offer.
“This isn’t a ‘no against you; it’s a ‘yes’ to a financial decision we have few (options) in,” Mayor Jill Techel told Naomi Chamblin, the Bookmine co-founder who also sought to acquire the Main Street property.
But those restrictions did little to the soothe hard feelings of Napans who urged the city to sell to the Bookmine – even though its bid was less than the appraised value and $800,000 below Holcomb’s.
Customers and friends of Chamblin, who opened the Pearl Street bookshop in 2013, declared the store would benefit locals, especially those with children, far more than another downtown restaurant or bar.
“I don’t want to be negative about it, but it’s hard not to be cynical,” Jaime Giorgi told council members. “What I see is a lot of turnover, the loss of many interesting places in Napa.
This is what I see: people come back (here) to drink and to sleep. And then they go to other towns to spend their money during the day.
About the restaurant and bar planned for the museum building, she said dismissively: “It’s drinking. Just drinking. Kids can’t drink.”
“I have nothing against businesses expanding, but we have many, many dining venues in Napa,” said Marilyn Campbell, another supporter of the bookstore. “We need to support businesses that cater to the residents and the Napa Bookmine has done that.”
Chamblin, speaking to the council before the vote, freely admitted she had no chance of outbidding Holcomb or Cara Recine, a Santa Rosa dance studio owner who offered $2.05 million – exactly the city’s appraised value – in hopes of opening an Arthur Murray dance franchise downtown. But she cited her shop’s hosting of author signings, book-related events and children’s activities as reasons to let her expand into a larger space and gain the security that comes with ownership.
Despite a warm reception from Napa customers, she told the council, the bookstore’s dependence on leasing makes it difficult to plan an expansion or any long-term strategy to avoid joining the list of local businesses that have closed while more tourist-based businesses have moved in.
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“Locals hold a thick layer of cynicism, as they feel they are not being considered in any of the developments,” said Chamblin.
All three bids were reviewed in April by the council, which acted in its role as the successor agency to the former Napa Community Redevelopment Agency.
Council members expressed their sympathies toward Chamblin and her husband and business partner, Eric Hagyard. But they also emphasized the museum building’s history has put its disposal out of the city’s hands.
Opened in 1940, the building at Main and First streets housed a grocery, appliance store and auto parts shop before the redevelopment agency acquired it in 1976. The purchase came ahead of redevelopment the city expected would reshape Main Street in the north of downtown, although the predicted growth never came. In its later years, 1201 Main St. housed the firefighters museum’s collection of historic equipment and memorabilia, before it closed after building damage from the 2014 earthquake.
But California’s 2012 shutdown of nearly 400 local redevelopment agencies to plug state budget holes threatened Napa’s grip on the building and other properties held by the body, which used property tax revenue for affordable housing and similar projects.
The state’s winding-down process for redevelopment agencies requires cities to sell their assets at market value, said City Attorney Michael Barrett. Also, Napa’s use of federal Housing and Urban Development dollars to buy the Main Street site in the 1970s requires it to sell to the highest bidder, because HUD collects the revenue from such property sales to give back to Napa as community grants to use toward housing and anti-poverty programs, he added.
Council members admitted the difficult balance between following state laws and supporting a well-loved local business.
“I agree with all of you. The problem is, our hands are tied on this,” Councilman Scott Sedgley told Bookmine fans among a 40-person audience in the council chamber. By selling the museum property far below market value, he said, “we could clearly be accused of favoritism.”
“I’d love to see you guys expand; I just don’t know that this is the place for you,” added Vice Mayor Mary Luros. “I also think having a dance studio downtown is a great idea, but we are required to maximize the property value.”
The proceeds’ ultimate use for grants benefiting emergency shelters and affordable housing make it even more necessary for Napa to get the maximum value for the old museum building, according to Luros. “This is money that goes to the people in our community who need it the most, so it’s important we get as much funding for them as possible,” she said.
Immediately after the vote, Holcomb and McComic met with the couple just outside City Hall to discuss another possible landing spot for the Bookmine – the $40 million mix of retail space and 51 townhouses McComic is pursuing for the Second Street property of the Napa Valley Register, which the newspaper will vacate in the coming weeks. The Register’s parent company, Lee Enterprises, sold the site to Vesta Pacific Development of San Diego in September.
While plans call for the project’s estimated 6,200 square feet of ground-floor store space to be divided in three parts, McComic, a Vesta Pacific spokesman, said the developer could offer the bookstore as much as half the retail zone depending on its needs.
The city Planning Commission had its first look at the design of the Second Street complex in March, but no vote has been scheduled.