Election day has come and gone, the votes have been counted, and a winner has been declared. But changing the date on your desk calendar cannot alter the philosophical positions that split Sonoma into two camps. Wounds are fresh and the division is still there.
Now, the real challenge begins – how to bring two opposing forces together for the good of the community. Leaders on both sides of the issue say a new dialogue has begun, a conversation about how the community will retain its singular identity while functioning in an environment where tourism pays the bills.
“The divisions in Sonoma are real and they can’t be papered over,” said Larry Barnett, who led the fight to limit hotel development to projects with 25 rooms or less. “What’s important is that they be examined and exposed in a process respecting difference, and not by feeding conflict through dismissive and demeaning behavior. It takes hard work, practice, and occasional failure, but this is something I believe is essential for a healthy society.”
Bill Blum, the general manager of MacArthur Place who was often a spokesperson for the “No on B” side, agrees. “There was a lot of talk about how divided the community was, but most people on both sides had their hearts in the right place, so I’m confident we can work together and find common ground as Sonoma continues to grow.”
Meanwhile, Darius Anderson, whose hotel project was put on hold pending the outcome of the election, will eventually restart the Environmental Impact Report process. But the election has given him time to reflect on how he wants to proceed.
“Moving forward, we’ll talk to people who were opposed and get their input,” said Anderson. “Over the last three months, people came in to our office and highlighted problems they had with the project. It was good input.”
The project has been evolving since that time, and will continue to change as new and better ideas are put forward, he said. “We’ve gone ahead and redesigned and we’re still willing to listen. If more changes are proposed, we’re open to that, but we want to know what the top concerns are.”
Anderson is a principal in Sonoma Media Investments, the owner of the Index-Tribune.
Barnett claimed money played a major role in the election outcome. “I think we underestimated the effect of all the hyperbolic mailers sent to voters by the NO on B side. We estimate the cost of those mailings will top $50,000 alone. We could not compete with that level of spending.”
He added that he thought the familiar status quo is generally easier for people to accept than something new. “Many people also thought ‘no’ meant ‘no big hotels,’” he claimed, “and we found ourselves spending much more time than we expected explaining what ‘yes’ would do. The election was very close and we have no idea what contribution confusion made.”
Anderson believes the “no” campaign was successful because it was about facts. “The ‘yes’ campaign got ahead of us and had more momentum. We educated people with facts and gave them time to think about what a sensible, well-built revenue stream could do for the city.”
The revenues he referred to are transient occupancy taxes, which currently provide about $2.5 million a year to the city’s General Fund. According to a study done by Kayser Marsten, 80 per cent of that revenue comes from hotels larger than 25 rooms.