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Former AT&T building in downtown Santa Rosa to feature wine museum


A 15,000-square-foot wine museum will be included in a renovation of the former AT&T building in downtown Santa Rosa, a long-awaited project that is now expected to start work in about two months.

The proposed California Wine Discovery Museum, occupying the building's lower level, would portray the past, present and future of California winemaking and would include wine tasting, said Lindsay Austin, a tech entrepreneur who is heading the nonprofit museum's board.

"It's a big mission," Austin said, and it depends on raising $2.5 million to acquire the exhibits and build the museum.

If the plan stays on track, the museum will open in early 2015 and serve as a "good first stop" for the 5 million people who come to Sonoma County for wine tasting each year, Austin said.

Santa Rosa developer Hugh Futrell said his purchase of the five-story concrete monolith on Third Street is expected to close Wednesday. Futrell is buying the long-vacant building from the city for $1,046,000, which he said was the midpoint of its appraised values.

City officials are reviewing plans for the demolition and construction permits needed to transform the windowless structure into a glass-clad office building. Futrell said he expects to start work in eight weeks.

"The city's been very receptive," he said.

Renovation of the old telephone company building has been the city's highest profile economic development effort for years.

Futrell's original plan called for expanding the five-floor building to 10 floors, with the upper five being developed for 43 apartments. The focal point of the venture was to be the Sonoma County Museum, which was to occupy the ground floor.

But years of delay led first to deletion of the residential portion of the project and then to the withdrawal of the county historical museum as a tenant.

Two businesses — TLCD Architecture and Luther Burbank Savings — will be the building's major commercial tenants. Futrell said he will hold off on leasing the remainder of the building until it starts to take shape.

"We want people to see what the building looks like," Futrell said, noting that would likely increase its leasing value.

Futrell's company — Museum on the Square, LLC — is donating space to the museum, which will be located in the below-ground level.

With direct access off Highway 101, ample parking and the adjacent city transit mall, Austin said the museum should "attract and educate up to 1,000 people a day."

The museum will acquire Petaluma antique dealer Jim McCormick's collection of more than 4,500 historic wine industry artifacts. The collection, which includes vintage grape presses, early wine cellar tools and more than 900 corkscrews, is not open to the public but is displayed on McCormick's website at www.californiawinemuseum.com.

"I like Jim; I like the collection," said Austin, who is also a member of the Sonoma County Museum board. "He's a dreamer (and) very excited about his museum."

McCormick, who's spent 30 years amassing his collection, said he was delighted by the prospect of seeing it in a museum.

"It's all great stuff," said McCormick, 71, who is an active antiques dealer. "I think it's going to be a tremendous asset for downtown Santa Rosa."

His collection is housed in five warehouses west of Petaluma and a downtown Petaluma studio.

The new museum will take visitors through the phases of winemaking, including planting, harvesting and crushing, displaying both historic exhibits and modern innovations, Austin said.

As a wine education and appreciation center, the museum will offer drop-in wine tasting as well as lectures and classes for wine enthusiasts, he said.

Austin said the windowless, below-ground space is "almost ideal for us," affording a secure, temperature-controlled site for the exhibits and wine.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.