Somehow these resort hotel aspirants for both Calistoga and St. Helena have been coached about the General Plans and told to “come in below the radar, describe themselves as private development firms, not mention they are major brand operations, get approvals, and the cities are then stuck with the deals.
While serving on the city council, mayoral candidate Peter White was an enthusiastic supporter of the Los Alcobas Resort, which is now closed. (St. Helena Star, March 11, 2015)
While still on the Planning Commission, former mayor Alan Galbraith was also enthusiastic about Los Alcobas and voted in favor of the the original 57-room project and when he was mayor, approved adding an additional 13 rooms. “I think it will greatly benefit the project and greatly benefit the city,” he said. “This is a project where we clearly need to move forward now.” (St. Helena Star, March 11, 2015)
In their rush to strike a resort development deal, White and Galbraith overlooked some of the inherent problems with Las Alcobas, primary lack of adequate parking, which became apparent as soon as it opened in 2017. Council chambers were flooded with irate residents who, among other things, found the curbs in front of their homes now painted red in order to accommodate the increased traffic at an intersection that was already precarious. People who had lived there for years now had no place for them or their guests to park in front of their own homes. Ultimately a deal had to be worked out with a nearby church to accommodate over-flow and employee parking for Los Alcobas. But the curbs are still red. And now, three years after it opened, Los Alcobas has closed with no indication of if and when it will re-open.
These are not the types of hotels that “grab people off the streets, pulls them out of their cars, and encourages them to stay the night,” not at these price points of $700/night or close to it. These are destinations in themselves…..
Mayoral candidate Peter White’s allegiance to resort developers such as the Los Alcobas team is well established. Back in 2015, Mary Stephenson of Our Town St. Helena, reminded the City Council that the current housing market, increasingly dominated by second-home owners, was making it harder than ever for low- and middle-class workers to live in St. Helena. She suggested that the city required new hotels to build affordable housing instead of just contributing to a housing fund. Councilmember Peter White, however, expressed more concern about increasing the economic burden on hotel developers than on exploring an option that would have favored affordable housing. (St. Helena Star, Oct. 28, 2015) Indeed, the Los Alcobas project eliminated 19 affordable housing units, increased demand for more, and the city got a mere $750,000 for its affordable housing fund as part of the original deal. (St. Helena Star, Feb. 18, 2015) Mary Koberstein was also on the planning commission from 2015 – 2016.
Fast forward to 2020, Galbraith and White are gone, and there is new leadership on the city council with Mayor Geoff Ellsworth that puts the needs of the community ahead of the needs of outsiders riding into town looking to make a buck. The recently approved Farmstead Hotel is a case in point. Among other benefits to the city, the Farmstead project offered much more favorable terms for St. Helena, including $3.2 million in affordable housing fees, with $1 million set aside for Our Town St. Helena to buy the nearby Phelps property and build an affordable housing project. (St. Helena Star, October 14, 2020)
“What was most unique about the Farmstead negotiation,” says Councilmember David Knudsen, who was part of the team that negotiated the deal on behalf of the city, “was the increase in the housing fund contribution to over $3 million, by far the largest for any similar-sized project in upper Napa Valley.” (David Knudsen, incidentally, is currently running for re-election. You might want to check him out.)
And unlike Los Alcobas, no affordable housing units will be lost as a result of this project. This is what happens when you have a mayor and city council members who put the put the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the developer.
It appears to me that Las Alcobas is one of those inside deals. The approval for the project which was to include 20 on-site rooms for employees was both sold and changed. I know Mayor Galbraith was directly involved in that from what he boasted in March 2015 that was reported in the local newspaper about $700/night rooms and 70% occupancy.
In February of 2019, one of the Los Alcobas hotel partners sued the other two partners for $50 million for fraud and breached contract. (Napa Valley Register, Feb. 17, 2019) In mid-September, Los Alcobas left the Marriot Luxury Collection. And now, in late October, Los Alcobas remains closed and sits empty. This is the unfortunate legacy of Peter White’s term on the St. Helena City Council. And now he wants to be our mayor!
Incidentally, the $1.73 million in Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) from the Los Alcobas project that was touted by Galbraith and White, never materialized. The difference in total Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) collected by the city in the fiscal year before Los Alcobas opened and the year after was $819,917. Even two years after Los Alcobas opened, the city only collected an additional $1,315,397 in TOT. And, well, we can all see what happened to TOT between July, 2019 and June, 2020. And, with an ongoing pandemic threatening additional shut downs, two massive wildfires in September and October forcing many people in the community to flee for their lives and causing precautionary and mandatory evacuations, major road closures, lingering smoke and dangerous air quality, we should anticipate an even worse showing for TOT in the next fiscal year.
Given the poor outcomes from a resort development project that was championed and approved by Peter White, why on earth would we want to go back to the failed policies and projects he so enthusiastically endorsed when he was vice mayor? If Peter White becomes our new mayor and, heaven forbid, Eric Hall, who appears to be cut from the same cloth, is elected to the city council, we will inevitably fall victim to the rapacious yearnings of even more fly-by-night developers and projects that put money in someone’s pocket but that don’t serve the city or the community well and may even have deleterious impacts.
Mayor Geoff Ellsworth and Councilmember David Knudsen have already shown their commitment to the people and who live here and a willingness to work with developers so that everyone comes out ahead. It would be a shame to take a giant step backward with Peter White sitting in the Mayor’s seat and Eric Hall by his side.
Incidentally, the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce might want to update its website. Click “Book Now” for Las Alcobas and this is the result.
(Please note: All block quotes come from Jim Conaway’s Blog, another great source of inside information and analysis from the man who wrote the books and has been closely following developments in Napa since the 1980s.)