Tourism is coming to Sebastopol, and in a style typical of the west Sonoma County town, everyone has the opportunity to voice an opinion on how to capitalize on the added revenue while maintaining the town's quirky charm.
With the opening of The Barlow, the showcase for slow-food artisans, and talk of a downtown hotel and expanded wine tasting options, Sebastopol is looking to capture some of the tourists who normally pass through the city on the way to the beach or the Russian River.
The volunteer group Cittaslow Sebastopol recently held an open house and online poll that generated more than 400 tourism ideas from residents. The group presented the survey's results to Sebastopol's City Council on Tuesday.
The ideas ranged from the practical — creating pedestrian and bike corridors to connect parts of the city — to the creative, like setting up a workshop for residents wishing to start a homestay business. They also included a few off-beat suggestions, such as a social media site for tourists to get to know locals.
"We're at sort of a turning point with tourism in Sebastopol," said Teresa Ramondo, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. "If we take advantage of it and shape it, it can be lucrative."
The Cittaslow or Slow City movement, with nearly 200 towns worldwide, encourages leaders to develop their cities sustainably using environmentally friendly practices.
Cittaslow Sebastopol, with an $8,000 budget from the city, wants to develop an eco-tourism sector where tourism businesses engage in sustainable practices and create more opportunities to enjoy nature, said Tasha Beauchamp, co-chair of the organization. She said she was encouraged by the amount of community participation in the process.
"What was really exciting was the way people were not against it, both on the right and the left," she said. "My surprise was how many people like this idea."
Councilwoman Sarah Glade Gurney said the report is full of ideas for the council to implement.
"These ideas are resonant with the council's goals," she said. "Some initiatives are going to come out of this."
Beauchamp said part of the approach is to bring tourists and residents together.
"If it's just come, spend money and go away, that's not Sebastopol," she said.
Other ideas from the workshop include constructing an eastside parking garage and starting an electric shuttle or bike rickshaw service, Beauchamp said.
"We're trying to position Sebastopol as the greenest, friendliest city in Sonoma County," she said. "Let's play to our strengths."
Randy Coffman, president of Sustainable Sebastopol and a member of the Sebastopol Downtown Association, said the process should explore how to connect The Barlow with downtown merchants, who could lose business to the new center.
"We want to look at The Barlow as an advantage to downtown," he said.
Expanded tourism could bring more headaches for locals, including traffic, a lack of parking and a higher cost of living, as residents of Healdsburg can attest. But Ramondo said that well-planned tourism could benefit Sebastopol without changing its character.
"People point to Healdsburg and say 'We want their money, but we don't want their problems,'" she said. "We want to keep our character, but we also need economic vitality to move the city forward."
You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.