(Editor’s note: The Register asked residents from four age groups for their thoughts about life in the Napa Valley today and their concerns for the future. This is the first installment.)
Whether Napa transplant or Napa native – most locals can agree on one thing: They know how good they’ve got it.
“There not a day that goes by that I don’t pinch myself and say I can’t believe I live here,” said Kim Northrop, 53, of Napa.
Napa is “a jewel” of a place to raise family in, said Lori Wear, 44, Napan.
“There are people that would give their right arm to live in such a beautiful valley,” said Napa local Kip Atchley, 60.
Napa has a Normal Rockwell feel to it, said Joe Brasil, 45, of Napa. “We’re lucky in so many ways.”
“I’m so grateful to live in this town,” said Rachael Clark, 49, longtime Napan.
In a series of interviews with Napans in their mid-40s to early 60s, residents offered a wide ranging view of “their” city. They appreciate the small-town feel and community connection. At the same time, they also worry about losing those same qualities while the city grows.
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Wear moved to Napa in 2000 and eventually started her own business called Spinelle Fine Jewelers. Today, she is also the mother of twin toddlers.
“What attracted me to Napa was the sense of community,” she said. “I looked around and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the perfect family community.’” Unlike in a larger city or urban area, in Napa “you can still go places and know quite a few people and have direct relationships.”
“When we came here in ‘72, it was amazing,” recalled Clark, a local Realtor.
“We had a real small-town feel. All our neighbors knew each other, our parents would parent each other’s kids and we could have meals at each other’s houses. It was a community,” she said.
Atchley recalled moving to Napa in the early 1960s as a young child.
“Life was much simpler, safer and less complex,” said Atchley, who is now a local entrepreneur and Napa Nissan employee.
He remembered riding in cars around town without wearing seat belts, picking “lots and lots of prunes,” visiting his favorite mom-and-pop merchants, raising animals for 4-H, swimming at Vichy Springs and going to see movies at the drive-in theater in Napa.
“When the first McDonalds opened in Napa on Jefferson Street, it felt that Napa was starting to ‘grow up,’” he said.
Northrop, who previously lived in Cincinnati, has lived in Napa for 18 years.
“I had come to Napa on my 30th birthday and I fell in love with it,” she said.
“I’m a happy transplant,” said Northrop, who owns Betty’s Girl Couture and Betty’s Girl Napa.
“I love the outdoor part of it. But I also love that I’m surrounded by entrepreneurial people,” such as artists, business owners and “people following their dreams.” Her social group of friends “are very much Napa lovers,” said Northrop.
Brasil was born in Vallejo, grew up in Fresno and moved to Napa after enrolling at Napa Valley College.
He worked for the Napa Valley Register for nine years, but has been a Realtor since 2004.
“I love it,” he said of Napa.
“As a Realtor, I see people from everywhere coming to Napa and wanting to be here. That’s just makes me feel like I’m blessed to be here.”
When Brasil’s clients ask what it’s like to live in Napa, “I tell them it’s a real community,” he said. Whether running into people at Trader Joe’s or at a Friday night football game, there’s always a connection, he said.
Plus, Napa is not just all about restaurants and wineries. “It’s a real town,” said Brasil. “It’s a place you can really live. We have a hospital, doctors, Target, a movie theater … all the conveniences.”
But as those conveniences have been added, so have new challenges for the city.
Brasil wondered if city services were keeping up with the growth.
“Our streets, especially downtown, are still pothole ridden. We have issues with code enforcement. We’re experiencing some growing pains and I don’t know if the city will get to a point where they can keep up,” said Brasil.
“I feel like there is a definite shift that is happening with the tourism component,” said Wear. The sense of community she felt in Napa when she first moved here has changed, she noted.
“The community is still there,” she said. “It’s intact, but I want to focus on keeping it intact before it slips from us. We don’t want to turn into Yountville or St. Helena,” Wear said.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads,” said Wear. “It can go one of two ways. It could go in the direction of all tourism,” she said. Or locals can work together to retain that sense of community.
“I’m cool with tourism,” said Wear. “But we need to keep focus,” on accommodating both visitors and locals. “Why can’t we have it all?”
“It’s like a marriage. We have to choose to work on our marriage, our community too. It can be done.”
Clark said she does not like seeing more hotels in the downtown Napa area.
“We have lost the mom-and-pop stores,” she said. “We don’t have Brewster’s, the Napa Valley Emporium, McCaulou’s.” Today, downtown “is geared more towards tourism,” said Clark.
Housing costs are another significant issue, said Atchley. “I don’t know how people who make minimum wage survive” paying Napa housing costs, he said.
Then there’s the traffic. “In the last few years, it’s significantly increased,” said Atchley. “You used to not have to wait through three cycles of stoplights to get through an intersection. On the weekends, it’s almost impossible to go across traffic upvalley.”
Wear said Napa could offer some kind of rent control to help support small businesses, “so they can swim with the sharks” or the national retailers who have deeper pockets and can afford higher lease rates.
“We need to stop building overpriced hotels,” said Clark. “Napa needs affordable housing” for its workforce.
Atchley said he hopes the local government can help encourage more affordable housing, or even micro-housing. It’s something he would personally like to help develop.
Brasil said that those who shun new affordable housing in their neighborhoods need to be more flexible.
“That needs to be spread out, in my opinion. That creates some balance in the community,” said Brasil.
The city should do all it can to accommodate the small businesses that give Napa its character and its charm, said Northrop.
“Small business owners create the fabric of the valley,” said Northrop. When people come to Napa, they want an authentic experience, she said. “They can shop at Anthropologie at home. But they can’t shop at Betty’s Girl at home.”
“My hope is that we are able to maintain that local feel and flavor but also continue to be attractive to more and more people,” said Northrop.
“It’s finding that balance. We don’t want to become cookie cutter,” she said. “We don’t want to become Walnut Creek.”
Jennifer Huffman is the business editor of the Napa Valley Register.