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.)

Opinion – The Hometown Team Bats the Former Mayor Out of the Ball Park

It seems our former mayor, Alan Galbraith, is still smarting from losing the election in 2018 to Geoff Ellsworth and he’s pulling out all the stops, including supporting both of Ellsworth’s opponents in this year’s race with campaign contributions to both.

After seeing a letter I had written to the St. Helena Star regarding water security and which ultimately endorsed Mayor Geoff Ellsworth as the only candidate in this year’s race who was addressing some of these larger issues, Galbraith emailed me (twice!) and challenged me to defend my comments. When I didn’t respond to the first one, he emailed again. Other than the inappropriateness of these emails (and wondering how he got my email address…..other than from official correspondence I may have sent when he was mayor), what is really annoying is that I had attempted on several occasions to discuss water security issues with him when he was mayor. His response then was to blow me off with a condescending smile and broad, dismissive statements such as, “Oh, we have plenty of water.” (LAFCO has since reported otherwise.)

He might as well have said, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, little lady.” (Ok, I took liberties with the “pretty” part.)

But this? This really is beyond the pale.

In a letter to the editor published in the St. Helena Star, Galbraith wrote, “My plea: As we move into the forthcoming municipal election, please evaluate candidates based on their qualifications, the inclusivity of their message (we are all in this together), and not on vacuous utterances rooted in purported “home town” superiority.”

First of all, it is worth noting that one of the candidates Galbraith endorsed for city council, seemed to cringe at receiving Galbraith’s endorsement. He asked the editor of the St. Helena Star to include the following with Galbraith’s endorsement letter: “Sadly, the most troubling thing for me about Alan’s endorsement is this: his time as mayor seems emblematic of the division and discord that continue to trouble us.” Indeed.

“Sadly, the most troubling thing for me about Alan’s endorsement is this: his time as mayor seems emblematic of the division and discord that continue to trouble us.”

In my mind it takes a special kind of bitterness to try to turn a message of inclusivity, one that was meant to let the people in this community know that they would be heard (those who often were ignored or dismissed by our former mayor—including other city council members) in to “home town superiority.” (Where have we heard that nasty twist of messaging before?)

There are many reasons Galbraith lost the election in 2018 and I must say a breath of fresh air filled the council chambers once Galbraith handed the gavel to Mayor Geoff Ellsworth. Meaningful conversations between the council members became more productive, instructive, and inclusive rather than dictatorial. Procedures and protocol were followed in an orderly manner without the chaos that sometimes ensued when Galbraith attempted to suppress meaningful debate or simply lost track of what was going on.

Now it appears Galbraith is trying to turn the clock back by endorsing his former Vice Mayor, Peter White, for Mayor, and (in addition to the candidate who rejected his endorsement) a relative newcomer to town for city council……citing it was because he was a “business man.” (I remember people liking George W. Bush and Trump for the same reasons. We all know how that turned out.)

But the more likely reason Galbraith endorsed this other candidate is further petty revenge, as this candidate is married to the owner of the Clover Flat Landfill who was miffed when Mayor Ellsworth questioned the safety of the landfill in its current location and made her objections to the mayor’s concerns quite public. (Indeed, fire swept through the landfill during the Glass Fire.)

I think the most troubling part about the former mayor’s quest for revenge and relevance is that it could end up doing further damage to the care, thoughtfulness, and inclusivity Mayor Ellsworth has sought to build these past two years. It also attempts to discredit Leslie Stanton, the other member of the “Hometown Team” who is a long-standing and respected member of the community. What exactly is wrong with having someone on the city council who, after serving St. Helena for the last 30-some years as the children’s librarian, wants to continue to serve to ensure that the often-forgotten voices of the families who call this their home are heard?

Leslie Stanton would be a wonderful addition to the St. Helena City Council and would serve with compassion, integrity, and a solid institutional memory. (Does anyone else know where the well is that the city dug on Adams Street years ago? Can anyone else claim they had their first kiss at the York Creek Dam? Did any of the other candidates play in the Napa River and work in the family’s vineyards as a child?)

So, let’s not go backward, but keep moving forward with a mayor who listens to all of his constituents and a council member, Leslie Stanton, who is intelligent, harbors a thirst for knowledge, and understands the needs of the families that live here and the long-time family vintners, who have worked the land here for generations, and welcomes newcomers with open arms.

To hold elected office is to serve…….and to serve ALL stakeholders. Mayor Geoff Ellsworth and Leslie Stanton truly understand this.

I have no problems at all with the Hometown Team.

— Elaine de Man