Vineyards have defined the Napa Valley’s identity for decades, but the tide of tourists arriving to partake of their fruits has in recent years become, more than ever, not only at the core of the county’s identity but its checkbook.
The numbers from local hospitality businesses made that fact plainer than ever in 2017. In the 12 months that ended June 30, Napa County hotels rang up a record $408 million, up 7.8 percent from the year before. Lodgings also continued their uninterrupted march upmarket as the average room rate jumped more than 5 percent to $316 a day, according to Visit Napa Valley.
It added up to a continued swelling in the ranks of wine country tourists, as the number of annual visitors to the county hit 3.5 million in 2016, the agency reported.
The appetite for hotel rooms showed no signs of ebbing in 2017. By late November, downtown Napa saw its newest vacation showpiece open its doors – the 183-room Archer Napa hotel, a five-story First Street edifice of brick, metal and glass that will be paired with a revamped First Street Napa shopping arcade next door. Within the Archer’s walls is Charlie Palmer Steak, another in the city’s growing roster of fine-cuisine establishments that have come to define the valley nearly as much as its wines.
The hotel trade stretched beyond downtown and into the once-gritty Oxbow District with Napa’s approval of another five-story hotel just west of the CIA at Copia food-and-wine exhibition center. Established resorts expanded their grounds or prepared to do so, as the Meritage embarked on an annex called The Village – a luxurious blend of food, wine, demonstration kitchens and an event lawn – while the Westin Verasa sought to add 32 more rooms, a spa and a rooftop restaurant with a view of the Napa River.
Elsewhere, sketches and business models for yet more lodgings continued to pile up at the city planning offices during the year, including a McKinstry Street resort from the owners of the Wine Train and a boutique hotel within the shell of the old Second Street post office. City officials estimated that if all hotel projects being reviewed were to be built out, Napa would gain about 1,200 new rooms and suites.
Upvalley, the 68-room Alcobas Napa Valley resort opened in the spring in St. Helena, while Calistoga has two luxury developments in progress: a Four Seasons development on the site of Silver Rose and Calistoga Hills.
Napa’s broad steps into its wine- and food-driven future, however, left some residents feeling left behind in a town they no longer believed served full-time Napans and their families – or anyone who is not vacationing or hosting vacationers.
“I’ve lived here for 25 years. Downtown used to be thriving for locals,” said Mary Richardson, one of more than 30 people to share their opinions about the hotel industry with the Register in June. “What was here was based on living here. Hardware, clothing, sporting goods, Safeway, parks, the library … What is now replacing that lifestyle is tourist-based: overrated, expensive eateries and hotels. We don’t want or need another wine bar!”
Other Napans, while crediting wine tourism with sparking a once somnolent downtown and boosting city finances, questioned whether the economic boom would ever trickle down to the mass of service workers keeping the hotels, tasting rooms and eateries humming.
“Most of these jobs don’t provide enough income for people to afford to live here so they commute form American Canyon, Vallejo and Fairfield,” wrote Doug McHarg. “This means we get that sweet rush-hour traffic in addition to tourism traffic. So the hotels actually make the problem worse on two fronts; they take up space that could be used for housing, and provide more low-income jobs.”
Although Visit Napa Valley reported more than 77 percent of local lodging workers lived in the county, the prospect of an economic boon that yet threatens to price out its creators was a riddle that preoccupied local officials, who scrambled for ideas amid ever-inflating rents and home prices in Napa and across the Bay Area.
The city in 2016 had sharply raised the impact fees it charges those developing new hotels, in hopes of funneling more funds into lower-priced rental apartments more attainable to those with service jobs. Several multifamily projects got the green light over the course of the year – including developments like Stoddard West and the Manzanita Family Apartments that are earmarked for lower-income families – and council members and planners worked to make high-density housing easier and quicker to approve.
As hotel rooms have grown more numerous in Napa, their importance to the bottom line has increased as well. The city budget’s share of revenue from the 12.5 percent room tax doubled over a decade, reaching a quarter of all general fund income by this year – yet still less dominant than in Calistoga and Yountville, where hotel guests now account for more than half the local revenue.
That dependency was laid bare with brutal suddenness in a single night.
Wildfires erupted across tens of thousands of acres in Napa and Sonoma counties Oct. 8, killing 44 people and laying waste to thousands of homes and forcing Calistoga to evacuate completely for four days.
Even after fire crews quenched the flames and the choking smoke, Napa County hotels saw guests cancel reservations and their revenue plunge 36 percent compared to the same month in 2016. Room rates fell and occupancy fell off by more than a fifth, cutting the bed-tax take for local governments accordingly – by an estimated 13 percent in the city of Napa, for example.
Despite the destruction of a handful of wineries in the fires, Napa County’s tourist infrastructure emerged mostly unscathed. But conveying that news to the vacationing public would take longer.
“People are worried, and rightfully so,” said Cody McClain, manager of Calistoga’s Best Western Plus Stevenson Manor. “However, everything is perfect here. We’re not burnt out. We’re ready to welcome everybody back.”