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Blackout fallout: Power shutdown affected businesses

The PG&E-imposed blackout last week affected businesses throughout Sonoma Valley, pressing managers and business owners into creative-thinking mode – and left some wondering what the long-term effects will be on the economy.

“Obviously, this was an economic disaster for our location,” said Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Ninety-five percent of our businesses were shut down and those businesses that were open made a valiant effort to serve the community’s basic needs and minimize the impact.”

Jack Burkam, general manager of the Best Western Inn, said there hasn’t been a noticeable injurious fallout from the power outage in the short-term.

“We’re still maintaining a good booking pace through December,” Burkam said. “The pace is really hanging in there pretty well.”

Long-term, he said, “We just don’t know,” if Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) plan will have a detrimental effect on tourism, the economic engine of Sonoma Valley and its surrounds.

For the wine industry business this is a “particularly sensitive time for the 2019 harvest, because without power it limits the time wineries can harvest their grapes and ferment at the appropriate temperatures,” Bodenhamer said.

The shutdown did interrupt some harvest plans, which could have a long-term effect, said Csaba Szakal, owner and winemaker of En Garde winery in Kenwood.

Szakal said he was at a vineyard on Wednesday, Oct. 9, which sits at about 2,400 feet and there was no wind there – wind was a criteria PG&E used to shut off power to the region. He wanted to harvest that day, but without power at the winery had to leave the grapes on the vine for the time.

Not being able to harvest when he wants could cause the quality of the wine to suffer, he said. It also could affect the logistics at the winery when other vineyards are ready to harvest.

“We could have three, four harvests on the same day,” which is not an ideal scene, Szakal said.

He’s upset about the effect the power shutoff will have on the business economy.

“This is a disruption of the economy. It’s really bad for everybody,” he said.

Codi Binkley, owner of B&V Whiskey Bar and Grille in Sonoma, estimated a loss of about $10,000 in inventory and revenue for the two-day shutdown. He brought a small generator from home, but it wasn’t powerful enough to run the restaurant’s refrigerator.

Trying to maintain a positive outlook, he said he doesn’t fault PG&E for its decision as a corporation, but he does feel badly for his employees who depend on tips.

“Every single person has dependents,” he said of his employees for whom he bought breakfast and lunch during the outage when they used the time to do some deep cleaning and reorganizing.

Joe and Ramie Hencmann, owners of Sweet Scoops ice cream shop on the Sonoma Plaza, turned the shutoff into a moment of benevolence. Armed with enough generator power to protect most of their ice cream inventory, they took to the streets to give away scoops of ice cream.

“Ice cream makes people happy,” Joe Hencmann said.

On Wednesday, Oct. 9, he and Ramie and their two children, Caden, 9, and Mila, 7, used a cart and traveled first to Larson Park, made their way to Maxwell Farms Regional Park, to a playground, and the next day went to the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building and the Sonoma Plaza. The children loved it, and overall, Hencmann figures they gave away 500 to 600 scoops of ice cream.

Ryan Robinson, general manager of Mary’s Pizza Shack on the Plaza, said the restaurant was closed for the two-day blackout, but was able to send employees to other Mary’s restaurants that were open and were doing a brisk business. A couple of people who showed up for work were not sent home, but did some spiffing up of the place, Robinson said.

He was unable to put a dollar value on the revenue lost from restaurant and take-out delivery, and said the event was “unfortunate.”

The power outage occurred during a “critically important economic time” for the region, Bodenhamer said referring to the harvest season when tourism peaks.

Burkam said a good portion of the guests who did stay, or were supposed to stay, at his Best Western hotel are from the Bay Area and were understanding of the power loss situation, since they were under the same power shutoff.

The general manager at Kenwood Inn and Spa, David Jessup, said that because they didn’t have power they suggested that their guests find somewhere else to go. A few opted to stay on Tuesday night, but without power folks couldn’t take a hot shower in the morning, Jessup said.

But the hotel lost revenue while the power was out; it’s a sacrifice that will have a trickle-down effect as employees weren’t needed and didn’t get paid for that time off.

On the front desk counter a handwritten note told guests what tasting rooms were open, where they could purchase gas, and which grocery stores were open.

At the Best Western, Burkam said they had a generator to power the phones and kitchen, but there was no power in the rooms.

During the power outage they moved some of their guests to a sister property in Healdsburg, which was unaffected by the blackout. About half of the guests scheduled to stay at the Second Street hotel decided to stay even without power in the rooms. They didn’t have anywhere else to go, couldn’t change flights or other vacation plans, he said, so they made the best of it.

A couple – Campbell Roth and Donald Scalia – visiting from Rochester, New York, relaxed on the outdoor patio of Hawkes Winery tasting room on Friday, Oct. 11, enjoying the wine and sunshine. They arrived during the blackout to attend a friend’s wedding at Scribe Winery over the weekend, and had already been contacted by El Dorado Hotel letting them know of the blackout so made arrangements to stay at an Airbnb in San Francisco.

The hotel let them know when power was restored and the couple were happy that their friend’s wedding could go on and continued on with their wine tasting plans.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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