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Healdsburg is such a desirable place to visit that it could more than double its number of existing hotel rooms to meet market demand, according to a new study commissioned by the city.

As many as 450 new hotel rooms could be built to satisfy pent-up demand, adding to the existing 365 rooms in nine hotels, according to PKF Consulting, which was commissioned by the City Council to gauge the Healdsburg lodging situation.

But just because the rooms would be filled relatively quickly by visitors flocking to the favored Wine Country destination doesn't mean they will get built.

"It's not the first step toward this huge explosion of 400 rooms in Healdsburg," said Mayor Jim Wood. "It's informational about what is the potential and locations that might be able to handle hotels in this community."

"It's a piece of the puzzle that goes into discussions down the road," said City Councilman Tom Chambers, who like other council members took pains to say he is not advocating all the rooms be built.

But a founder of a citizens' group that favors restricting the size of new hotels, potentially with a future ballot measure, criticized the $24,500 study for what it left out.

Warren Watkins, head of Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, said the study did not match up with recent City Council strategic planning sessions in which residents asked for "economic diversity," instead of more promotion of hotels and tourism.

Were consultants told "that most every resident, voter and local in the Healdsburg area wants to maintain our small town as a first priority?" Watkins said.

Mayor Wood said the city's general plan and its goal of preserving small town character will guide what actually ends up getting approved and built.

He noted that a controversial 75-room, five-story hotel that was proposed last year near the Healdsburg Plaza, then dropped, "never made it past the planning director" as details about its size leaked out.

"It was clear it was not appropriate for the community and people let us know that," he said.

"You won't see 400-some-odd rooms coming to town anytime soon," said Councilman Shaun McCaffrey, who said there is the "oversight" of the Planning Commission and City Council to determine how much development is appropriate.

PKF Chief Executive Thomas Callahan said "a significant amount of un-accommodated demand wants to come into Wine Country. If you build the right product, to some degree, they will come."

But he cautioned that hotels are tough to develop and finance and can take decades to build.

Callahan said demand for the 450 new hotel rooms could be absorbed in a year or two, but the reality is that projects would be staggered "over a long period of time," perhaps a decade.

The study detailed how occupancy levels continued to rise in Healdsburg to a robust 79 percent, a high level that means most hotels are operating at full capacity on weekends throughout the year and during the busy summer and fall seasons. As a result, consultants say visitors are turned away at Healdsburg lodging facilities and end up staying in neighboring towns.

Demand has grown at a pace nearly double that of supply in Healdsburg, according to the study.

The authors said it is important to note that the new hotel rooms would be dispersed throughout the city and therefore would not create significant congestion in any given area.

They said the clientele would consist of both commercial and leisure travelers, further dispersing demand, since business travelers typically stay during the week and tourists seek rooms on weekends.

Even if all the new rooms were built, consultants said Healdsburg would still have a relatively small number of hotel rooms in relation to its size.

With a 11,400 population, the city has one hotel room per 31 people. By comparison, Sonoma, with 10,850 people has roughly twice the number of hotel rooms, with one room per 15 people.

Other tourist destinations like St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville have even higher number of rooms compared to their populations.

The study did not include small bed and breakfast inns.

Consultants listed 11 sites in Healdsburg that have been identified for potential future hotel development.

Hotels have already been proposed on two of them: the 39-room H3 Hotel south of the Healdsburg Plaza and the 130-room Saggio Hills resort, already approved in the northern part of the city.

Both are expected to open within next five years.

The remaining nine sites are located throughout Healdsburg, from Quaker Hill on the north to the Capital Lumber site in the south.

The study identifies four types of hotels and their potential sites:

A group-oriented hotel at the Quaker Hill site on north Healdsburg Avenue with 150 to 200 rooms as part of a mixed-use development that would include residential dwellings and retail units.

Luxury market lodging — the 130-room Saggio Hills resort which consultants say is one of the best hotel sites in Napa or Sonoma counties.

A select service hotel with limited amenities at a city owned site at 155 Dry Creek Road which could have 80 to 100 rooms.

Downtown boutique hotels on seven sites generally near the Healdsburg Plaza, or at the south end of the city. Consultants said 100 to 150 new rooms could be supported within the downtown core.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com)