Monday, August 6, 2007
"A community of diners and bowling alleys"
We came to Napa in 1986. It was three years before the Berlin Wall came down and the Mare Island Shipyard was still a major employer, keeping our subs in shape to patrol for the Ruskies. Nobody had heard of base closures, and nobody could imagine that Napa Pipe would be closed down in less than a generation. There was still a tannery in business on Coombs Street back then. Napa had no Target stores and no In and Out Burger, let alone any high end restaurants. Brewster's Army-Navy Store was one of the downtown's star attractions, in fact, and people were just starting to get serious about restoring the Opera House.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and you'd hardly recognize some parts of the downtown, and particularly the Oxbow district. The town the New York Times calls a "community of diners and bowling alleys" has passed the tipping point and the times they are a changin'. There are now 17 Zagat-rated restaurants in the downtown area alone, and 13 wine bars or tasting rooms. The City of Napa used to be a deserted island in the middle of the wine country - now it's on it's way to being the best home base for the millions who come here, and evetually may become destination in its own right.
Recent newspaper stories tell the tale. This July 30th piece from USA Today was followed by this August 3rd story in the New York Times. Both may have been stimulated by this May 27th article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The big deal here is that for the first time, major news stories talking about Napa Valley are focused on Napa City. In a couple of years there will be 1,000 hotel rooms in the downtown area, compared to 10 years ago when there were maybe 30. We've always had a healthy B&B sector, but now the hospitality engine is revving up big time.
Challenges remain. There's not enough shopping. There are still too many empty storefronts. The Flood Project is still years away from completion. And most importantly, there is a swath of of resentment that runs through a faction of the local population - they see their "community of diners and bowling alleys" becoming swanky, and they don't like it. They have no use for the French Laundry and $100 Cabernets, and no use for people who swoon over those niceties. They see the suggestion that the Ritz Carlton will build downtown as the final straw - the town has gone to the snobs. Napa is a town with blue collar roots, budding out with white collar aspirations.
I feel a little sorry for the locals who can't see the writing on the wall. What's past is past, and as the songs says, "You'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone..."