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Healdsburg seeks to balance tourism, small-town life

  • Tourists and locals walk along Healdsburg Avenue in front of the Hotel Healdsburg on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2103. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Healdsburg is undergoing a deliberate soul-searching exercise as it struggles with the tension between tourism, the needs of local residents and the town's future direction.

New hotels planned downtown — particularly an application for a 75-room, five-story building that was withdrawn following objections to its height and density — have stoked the debate over the type of lodging that should be allowed without losing the small-town character.

It's a similar discussion to the one that led to last week's election in Sonoma, where a proposal to limit the size of new hotels was narrowly defeated.

And it echoes the cries of battles in the wine-and-food Mecca of Napa Valley, where residents worry about the proliferation of high-end resorts and traffic jams.

Healdsburg, situated near the intersection of three picturesque vine-growing valleys — Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River — attracts visitors with its wine tasting rooms, trendy restaurants and shops bordering the shady, 156-year-old plaza.

While tourists can create congestion and parking problems, they also help cash registers ring and boost city coffers with hotel- and sales-tax revenues.

So far, the trade-off has been acceptable from the perspective of Healdsburg leaders, who acknowledge the need for more economic diversity in town, whether that means attracting jobs related to the high-tech industry, health care or education.

“A lot of cities would love to have the problems we are having,” Vice-Mayor Jim Wood said during a daylong “strategic planning” workshop last week attended by City Council members and department heads.

The workshop was part of a methodical look at Healdsburg's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that was launched this year when the City Council hired a consultant for $25,000 to help probe those topics.

Residents, city employees and members of the business community have had the opportunity to chime in this fall during a series of sessions. The top concerns that emerged can be boiled down to three themes, from the viewpoint of City Manager Marjie Pettus: residents vs. tourists, housing and economic diversification.

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