By Bill Blum
It might seem that, as the general manager of a hotel here in Sonoma with more than 25 rooms, I would be thrilled with the Hotel Limitation Measure, since it would essentially ban any new hotels in Sonoma our size from ever being built in the future.
But there is a reason the Sonoma City Council voted to write the opposition argument to Measure B on the ballot, and there’s a reason all hotels in Sonoma with more than 25 rooms oppose this measure, along with the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers, the San Francisco Travel Bureau and even the California Travel Association. It’s potentially the most damaging initiative to ever come before our city.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that Larry Barnett and I have been friends and business associates for more than 20 years and I hope to continue that relationship after the election.
Our friendship began when I hired Larry to design Sonoma Mission Inn’s first website, and he also designed and created MacArthur Place’s website more than 15 years ago. As chairman of the Marketing Committee of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, I hired Larry to design the visitors bureau website as well. And when Larry was running for reelection to the City Council, I was one of those people walking around Sonoma wearing one of those giant “I’m just wild about Larry” buttons. Ironically, most of my conversations with Larry during the last two decades have been about how to bring more visitors to our hotels, so I must say when Larry proposed this initiative it completely floored me – but as friends we have agreed to disagree on this issue.
That said, let me give the top five reasons why I oppose the Hotel Limitation Measure.
1. We do not have a hotel problem
Of all of the problems facing Sonoma in recent years, hotels have not been one of them. Sonoma hasn’t had a hotel project of more than 25 rooms come before the City Council or Planning Commission in more than 10 years, and there have been no new hotels in Sonoma over 25 rooms since the Lodge at Sonoma opened in the year 2000, more than 13 years ago.
Sonoma Valley has been a visitor destination dating back to the 19th century, and when the Sonoma Mission Inn opened as a 100-room hotel in 1927, there were more hotels in Sonoma Valley and on Sonoma Plaza than there are today. If Larry had been Mayor in 1843 when the El Dorado Hotel was built, at 27 rooms, I’m afraid it may have been banned as being a large hotel.
2. If we don’t have a hotel problem, then why this initiative?
This is huge for me, because if we truly don’t have a problem, then what’s the reason for an initiative that will have the largest impact ever on tourism, Sonoma’s biggest industry.
If you listen to the creators of Measure B, it is because they don’t trust our city – they don’t trust the public process, they don’t trust our city staff or our planning commission and they certainly don’t trust our City Council. The problem is, after all of them, and everyone in this town, is long gone, this initiative will still be in place. I trust the process we have in place that has worked well for generations of Sonomans.
3. Measure B is poorly planned and would have negative, far-reaching impacts on the character of our small town.
With 50 percent of Sonoma’s revenue coming from transient occupancy tax and sales tax that fund police, fire, emergency services, public parks, road improvements and our local nonprofits, hotels provide revenues that are the lifeblood of Sonoma’s economy, not just for the city but for local businesses, shops, restaurants and our wine industry, especially when compared to the only alternatives developers will be left with – office buildings, chain stores or strip malls. Take a minute and think about the blighted Sonoma Truck and Auto dealership across from MacArthur Place. Would you rather see a Walgreens or a strip mall go in there, or a charming 30- to 35-room hotel like the Inn at Sonoma down the street? The traffic generated from a Walgreens or a strip mall would likely be 100 times that of a small hotel.
As an example, there is more traffic going in and out of the Subway sandwich shop and Easy Stop markets across the street from MacArthur Place, than goes in and out of our hotel.
4. Measure B encourages outside developers and urban sprawl, and hurts existing local businesses
This initiative hit me personally, because at MacArthur Place, we would never be able to grow our business and expand by even one room, but an outside developer could come in and put up a 25-room hotel right next door to us. The same would apply to other locally-owned hotels, such as the El Pueblo Inn, the Sonoma Valley Inn and the Inn at Sonoma, all of which have been able to expand in the past, but would never be able to expand again.
It also encourages outside developers who want to build a hotel with more than 25 rooms to build right outside the city limits, like across the street from the Lodge at Sonoma or across from the El Pueblo. This initiative would have no effect on a developer wanting to build a 100-room hotel on the other side of Leveroni Road, across from the Lodge. And if a hotel like that were built there, the city would get none of the tax revenue, and more traffic, since it wouldn’t be walking distance to the Plaza – exactly what our existing General Plan and Urban Growth Boundary are designed to protect.
5. Follow the money
Consider this: police, fire, emergency services, public works and road improvements alone make up $10 million of this year’s $12 million city budget. When half of the money to fund these services comes from transient occupancy tax and sales tax, think about how these things will be funded in the next 20-to-30 years, or even the next 50-to-100 years as costs continue to rise.
I served as vice chair of Sonoma’s Budget Advisory Committee when we looked at all options to raise revenues and cut costs, and I can tell you this: With the $1.8 million in redevelopment money the city received every year taken away by the state, and with the sales tax increase passed by voters going away in four years, the revenue choices are few. The city has already done an amazing job cutting its costs, so the options were to continue to raise taxes, add parking meters and increase parking citations (not a popular option), or add additional hotel rooms to increase transient occupancy tax.
While it may be well-intended, Measure B will have a negative impact on our quality of life now, and particularly for future generations. I urge you to vote “no” on Measure B and protect our town.
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Bill Blum is a longtime resident of Sonoma and the general manager of MacArthur Place, a 64-room luxury hotel.