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A private parking lot just south of the Healdsburg Plaza is targeted as the site for a new boutique hotel, adding more upscale lodging to the popular tourist town.

The Kessler Collection, a Florida-based hotel company, has an option to purchase the parcel in downtown Healdsburg, according to the property owner.

And the company also is negotiating with the city to meet parking and other requirements for the project, described as ranging from 60 to 70 rooms, and four to five stories in height, said several people briefed on the details.

"It's a pretty big project," said contractor Jerry Eddinger, who was offered the job as project manager, then declined citing other commitments.

Eddinger, a former mayor and currently chairman of the city planning commission, said the company wants to develop its first California property and has looked at sites in Napa, Petaluma and Sonoma.

"Healdsburg is the first choice," he said.

Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce officials say the city needs more hotel rooms, especially on busy weekends when visitors are sent to neighboring communities such as Geyserville or Cloverdale.

Healdsburg leaders appear receptive to the prospect of a new hotel and the economic boost it can bring, in contrast to Sonoma, another tourist magnet where the City Council placed a controversial measure on the November ballot that would limit hotel development.

But the Healdsburg project is far from a done deal and there has been no formal application.

In response to inquiries from The Press Democrat, company Chairman and CEO Richard Kessler released a statement saying "in the near future, we will propose to the City of Healdsburg a comprehensive development of a 4-star boutique hotel."

"It is certainly our intention to offer a product and service that does not presently exist in the market and would be a benefit to the citizens of Healdsburg and the surrounding area. We will be working closely with the City of Healdsburg and elected officials to achieve this goal," he said.

The company touts its portfolio of ten "exclusively designed and artistically inspired boutique properties," each filled with "unique artwork from internationally acclaimed artists."

Kessler locations include Savannah, Georgia, Taos, N.M., St. Augustine, Fla., Asheville, N.C. and ski- and hunting-themed lodging in Colorado.

Kessler's intent to develop a hotel in Healdsburg surfaced after the City Council met twice in closed session this month to discuss selling city-owned parcels to the hotel company, apparently to help meet parking or other requirements associated with the project.

City officials have declined to explain why the city-owned properties are in play, and whether the city would be selling them entirely, partially, or granting an easement.

They include a city-owned, public parking lot that stretches between Healdsburg Avenue and Center Street immediately south of the potential hotel site; the West Plaza parking lot at 17 Matheson Street; and a grassy spot to the north of City Hall parking lot.

"We're now talking about a number of city-owned properties and how they may, or may not play into the project," said City Manager Marjie Pettus. "We're still in closed session, so there's nothing I can disclose or talk about."

She acknowledged, though, that "they want to build a hotel.

"They have to meet parking requirements. It's about meeting options and how to package something up that will meet their needs and the city's needs," she said.

"The council is concerned about potential impacts to the downtown, so negotiations are tough now," she added.

The closed-door sessions were criticized by real estate agent Eric Drew, who told the council last week the matter should be the subject of "a very open and public discussion."

Drew owns the large Quonset-like building to the south of the proposed hotel site that recently housed an antiques emporium. He acknowledged that he would have liked to buy the city-owned parking lot that is part of the city's negotiations with Kessler.

"What I don't understand is you're talking about selling to someone who has not yet made a public presentation on what their plans are," he said in a subsequent interview. "These things should be transparent before you start selling parking lots."

City Council members defended their ability to meet in closed session when it comes to real estate transactions.

Councilman Jim Wood said there are few things public agencies can do in private, but they include real estate negotiations, litigation and personnel matters.

"Until you make a decision one way or another .<TH>.<TH>. you have a right and I believe a responsibility to keep those things between negotiating parties," he said.

John Holt, an owner of the private parking lot at 230 Healdsburg Ave. envisioned for the hotel, said he signed an agreement to sell the lot to Kessler, but there are several contingencies before the deal becomes final.

Holt was among a group of investors that developed the Hotel Healdsburg that opened in 2001 and the H2 Hotel that opened in 2010.

Among the issues for the Kessler project, he said, are parking requirements and potential contamination from a service station on the property decades ago.

He said it's premature to be discussing details of the size and scope of the hotel. "It's certainly a complex piece of property. It's still in negotiation stages. I don't think it's proper to dialogue about it," he said.

But members of the Chamber of Commerce who were briefed on the hotel project by Eddinger were impressed by the sketches and things they heard about the corporation.

"It looked very nice. The company seems like they are trying to be responsive to the concerns the people of Healdsburg might have," said Chamber President Dan Maraviglia. "As a group it seems like they've done very nice work in other parts of the country."

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

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