The Case for YES on Measure G

If you haven’t voted, yet, we certainly hope you will. This may be the most important election in your lifetime, starting at the top of the ticket all the way down to the bottom.  In terms of the St. Helena election, we have already made our endorsements very clear:

    • Geoff Ellsworth for Mayor
    • Leslie Stanton for City Council
    • David Knudsen for City Council

But there’s one more item on the ballot we haven’t really talked about yet. Measure G.  Krys Smith makes the best case we have seen, yet, in favor of Measure G, a ballot measure we fully endorse. This is reprinted from the St. Helena Star;

The misinformation being spread that a hotel on Adams Street will ‘save” St. Helena is a disgraceful disservice to the people of this city being asked to weigh in on selling our own public land to a private developer.

This [Measure G] is not an anti-hotel opinion. In fact many of us opposed to selling the Adams Street public land to a private developer, are in favor of the Farmstead and Krug hotels on Highway 29. They are both long-time local businesses that have invested in St. Helena for decades, and are on their own land.

“The Adams story has a breadcrumb trail of big money trying to use scare tactics to get our community confused enough to sell off our incredible public assets to a luxury resort chain.”

The SHAPE Committee did not recommend selling Adams Street (read the final report on the city website).
The Financial Task Force did not recommend selling Adams Street (read the final report on the city website).
All city council meetings to date have had a large majority of residents against selling Adams Street (see all meetings on the city website – go back and count – we did).
Over 500 people recently signed a petition to stop just three people on the city council from having the power to sell Adams Street without public vote.
This information was taken directly from the Task Force Final Report on the city website: Here’s what it would take to get to the revenue they say an Adams Street Hotel will bring to St. Helena:
    • Fill 56 rooms at $1,200/night all 365 days (rainy winter months, fire months, Covid, etc.);
    • Each room must spend $900 every day all 365 days within the resort;
    • Each room must spend an additional $400 every day for 365 days within St. Helena city limits;

This does not include any money spent outside, at most Napa winery visits like Hall, Freemark Abbey, Duckhorn, Far Niente, Cakebread, etc. and wine purchases, dinner at Press, Auberge, Limos, etc.

The hotel does not pay St. Helena until the full development plan and the full Environmental Impact Report is complete and approved by both the Planning Commission and City Council. That could take years, or they could stall building it like the Four Seasons in Calistoga, and the city would not get paid for the land. Did you know that?

St. Helenans, it’s more important than ever to do the reading and not rely on hearsay – even when the hearsay sounds legitimate. The power spreaders are very effective at altering the truth. After all, they have a lot of money at stake.

“Yes on Measure G puts a hold on hotel development only on Adams Street for only 20 years. With two other local hotel projects on their land, endless devastating fires, COVID and climate change altering our lives, we can wait just 20 years, evaluate the new hotels, and let the next generation weigh into their future too.”

Krys Smith

Peter White and the Los Alcobas Debacle

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!

The $1.73 million in TOT revenue Galbraith & White anticipated from Los Alcobas, which opened in 2017, never materialized.
In fact, relying on TOT as a major source of income doesn’t appear to be a very good idea at all.

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.)

Do Not Be Mislead – St. Helena is NOT “Broke.”

As we get closer to the election, and making a decision on Measure G, we’re going to start hearing more and more comments implying the “The City is Broke” by a number of local noisemakers.

This is not only not true, it is a deliberate scare tactic being put forth by some, and repeated by others, with the intention of making the voters believe that selling the Adams Street property to a resort developer is imperative to St. Helena’s financial health.

A Request for Proposals for a resort development on the Adams Street property was issued in 2016 and met with vigorous objections by the residents of St. Helena. Former Mayor Alan Galbraith, with the backing of Vice Mayor Peter White, then attempted an end-run by selecting one of the 3 proposals that had been submitted, without consent or consultation, by placing a last-minute item in the agenda to approve the one they favored, again without any input from the community. Again, the citizens voiced their objections and it was tabled, again. But only temporarily.

Mark Smithers, CPA and Chairman of the SHAPE Committee (St. Helena Assets Planning Engagement Committee) offers the following to clear up recent misstatements and information omissions that have been published in the local newspaper:

 

  1. Adams St is not going to be the funding source many are describing to fix our municipal funding needs.  I’ve been involved in property transactions for 40 years and no sane purchaser / developer is going to pay $25 million for this property until their project is approved.  The City may get $1 million earnest money, but the remainder comes upon project approval and that will be at least 7 years from when the property is sold.
  2. Adams St doesn’t need to be sold.  A more favored form of municipal financing for infrastructure (City Hall, Police Station, Library improvements) is General Obligation Bonds.  The City Manager and the City Finance Director both confirmed that your property taxes would go up less than 3% under a $25 million GO Bond.  I’ve asked them to publish this information to the public to eliminate the confusion.
  3. The City Council, in a September 2018 meeting, approved building City Hall at its current site.  Some folks are suggesting this never happened. As a consequence we went down some tangled path and as a result we still haven’t started building a much need City Hall.  SHAPE was asked to provide recommendations and the overwhelming favorite of the committee was to rebuild City Hall at its current site.  It’s all in the report.
  4. Regarding Water and Wastewater CIP (construction and major repair), the staff report and The Star editorial suggest the CIP is “mostly unfunded.”  That’s not really right.  The 2016 rate study only went out 10 years, not the 20 years the recent CIP Engineering Report provided.  The 2017 staff report on the new rates did go out 20 years and it provided for $22 million of water CIP and $15 million of wastewater CIP.  If you look at this issue more clearly and transparently, our current rates by and large are based on the project totals that are in the engineer’s report.  It is not right to say they are unfunded and suggest there is a financial disaster in the Water and Wastewater entities.  Financially they are in very good shape with incredibly high reserves and positive cash flow adding to those reserves.
  5. As to Storm Drain replacement, which is funded through the General Fund, not the water or wastewater entities, nearly $12 million is for drainage improvements.  This means $7 million is for repair and replacement over 20 Years; that’s $350,000 a year.  Yes, we have storm drains that need to be replaced, but it isn’t the financial catastrophe being suggested.  And yes, let’s make improvements, but these can be mapped out and staged as our General Fund allows.  We lived without storm drains on many of our more rural city roads (Dean York, South Crane, Sulphur Springs, Mills Lane, etc.); we don’t need to rush to add storm drains to all them now.

My points above are to provide correct information and information that wasn’t shared.  Some folks are using aspects of the information to scare us into thinking we need to sell the farm and that just isn’t so.

— Mark Smithers

For a complete copy of the SHAPE Report, click on the link.