Travel writers and tourism planners often cite Sonoma and Healdsburg as two must-see places in Sonoma County. Both are in the heart of Wine Country destinations. Both have highly-rated restaurants, hotels and spas. Both have charming plazas surrounded by unusual shops.
Although Sonoma is older, both cities have been in business a long time. While both cities have struggled in the past to provide quality commercial development that helps pay the bills for streets, fire and police, some critics have been unwelcoming, citing loss of “character” and the erosion of “small town feel.”
The opening of the Dickens classic, “A Tale of Two Cities,” may be the best summary of what’s afoot in both places. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”
On Nov. 19, voters registered in the City of Sonoma will be asked to cast a ballot either for or against limiting the size of new hotels in Sonoma to 25 rooms or less, until occupancy in existing lodgings exceeds 80 percent in the previous one year period. The initiative, called Measure B, came about after a 59-room hotel, proposed by Chateau Sonoma Hotel Group on West Napa Street, half-a-block from the Plaza, began to go through the public approval process.
In Healdsburg, meanwhile, a luxury hotel chain called the Kessler Collection announced in August it had an option to buy a downtown parking lot south of Healdsburg Plaza with hopes to build a 60-to-70-room “boutique” hotel in that city. And while Healdsburg has been working to attract additional hotel development, there are dissident voices starting to rise there as well. Warren Watkins, who has contributed to the campaign to limit hotel size in Sonoma, has formed a group in Healdsburg called Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, and may propose a ballot measure to limit hotel development in that city.
Are hotels a symptom of runaway growth, or a sign of good planning?
In 1996, the city of Sonoma was in an economic slump. After austere cuts and adoption of bare bones budgets, a proposal to build a hotel at Four Corners, at the edge of the city limits surfaced.
It was met with controversy at every stage of the process.
Approved on appeal by the City Council with one abstention, the hotel was eventually built and the redevelopment agency encouraged the development by providing funds for some of the required infrastructure. The abstention was Larry Barnett, who owned a bed and breakfast inn at the time, and is now leader of Preserving Sonoma, the group that created and is supporting the Measure B initiative.
While not in the downtown, the Lodge at Sonoma originally promised 154 rooms, a spa, restaurant, shops and office space. When it opened in 2001, transient occupancy tax (TOT) – the so-called “bed” tax (and the only tax that remains locally collected and locally spent) – was about $630,000.And by year three, the TOT had jumped to $1.9 million. Thereafter, other hotels were built or expanded –MacArthur Place, Inn at Sonoma, Sonoma Valley Inn – all receiving minor assistance for infrastructure from the now defunct redevelopment agency. By 2007-08, the TOT had jumped to $2.6 million and the city’s finances were in good shape.