Peter White may not be seen as the most verbose member of the St. Helena City Council or the most outwardly passionate, but his poised demeanor hides some strong and compelling opinions.
As part of our ongoing series interviewing local leaders, and in the midst of last week’s fires, White attended our board meeting and talked about the local economy, housing, growth and transportation.
As the only councilmember who remembers the St. Helena of the ‘60s, White brings a valuable perspective to the council. He doesn’t see the era through rose-colored glasses.
At our last editorial board meeting, White recalled chain stores, a wine industry that was still in its infancy, and a blue-collar economy dependent on Mare Island and Kaiser Steel.
He’s under no illusion that those days are coming back. He talked persuasively about adapting with the times and not trying to relive the halcyon days of “old St. Helena.”
White attributes a lot of the anti-development sentiment around town to people, now retired, who moved to St. Helena during a particular era and want it to stay the way it was, frozen in time. Speaking very bluntly, he said that attitude is behind the attempted recall of Mayor Alan Galbraith, which he calls “stupid.”
White blames NIMBYism for opposition to infill housing projects like Joe McGrath’s on McCorkle, where a lawsuit has forced the developer to reimburse the city $170,000 for legal fees.
White’s a quiet guy, and he said he’d rather get stuff done than talk it to death — and getting stuff done costs money.
He talked about the city’s urgent need for new revenue streams to upgrade its infrastructure. He is proud of continuing service on the Napa Valley Transportation Authority, which he said has gotten better at encouraging collaboration among cities and helping attract grant money including the $1.2 million for St. Helena’s sidewalks.
He was optimistic about new funding sources like Measure D, Measure T and the Las Alcobas hotel, but he noted that additional hotels (he’d like to see one or maybe two more) will have to overcome strong NIMBYism.
He was eager to see some revitalization downtown. He suggested that the downtown might have to get as empty as Napa’s did a few years ago in order for things to turn around.
However, White stopped short of saying the city should take an active role in identifying or attracting potential commercial tenants. That was one of a few times in our interview where we wished White would be a little more forceful in following through on his strong opinions.
For example, we’d like to see White, who usually votes with Galbraith, reach out more to councilmembers like Mary Koberstein and Geoff Ellsworth. He said he’s done that, but maybe he’s just too mellow to feel comfortable in an activist role.
That’s not to say he’s a passive councilmember. White, who started out on the Planning Commission, said he’s tried to recruit some young parents to serve on the commission and build up St. Helena’s political bench.
He was frustrated that none of them were appointed, but said he’ll keep trying to get young people involved in city government. He believes young blood is crucial in bringing new energy to the city and countering the false nostalgia of the reflexively anti-development crowd.
We applaud him for that, and for bringing a thoughtful, informed voice to the council.