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New hotels planned downtown — particularly an application for a 75-room, five-story building that was withdrawn following objections to its height and density — have stoked the debate over the type of lodging that should be allowed without losing the small-town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.
Financial stability and the ability to maintain infrastructure, she said, also are part of the mix.
"Comparably speaking, we are in a good place," is how Pettus summed things up in Healdsburg. "We have a solid foundation. What we need to decide is how we're going to build on that to define the next chapter. What can we identify to provide jobs, revenue and community in a way that doesn't rely exclusively on what we have in the past?"
Three decades ago, as Healdsburg shed its sleepy, lumber-town identity, city leaders decided to court the destination-tourist industry.
It was a recommendation that grew out of the findings of a 1982 report from a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team that noted the city was constrained in its ability to grow by physical and environmental considerations.
"Tourists make no demands on the school system, few demands on recreation, water and sewer systems and, best of all, they go home," the report said.
But even if visitors only stick around a short time, critics worry that a tourist "tsunami" has led Healdsburg too far in the wrong direction by creating traffic backups on weekends, overrunning the cherished plaza and driving out businesses that cater to locals.
There's a "party town atmosphere," said Warren Watkins, a retired math teacher who is threatening to mount a ballot initiative to restrict the height and size of new hotels.