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“Tourists go home,” was the message spray-painted in red letters on the side of a trailered boat close to the freeway, just before the official “Welcome to Healdsburg” sign.

The crude greeting two years ago was part of a pushback from locals who felt tourism had reached a tipping point, whether from too many tasting rooms, traffic congestion, lack of parking or rising housing costs linked to second-home buyers.

The boat off the side of Highway 101 appeared only briefly but left an indelible impression, to the point one hotelier mentioned it last week discussing the conflicted feelings toward his industry and the latest buzz phrase in Healdsburg: “sustainable tourism.”

The term has emerged as residents try to strike a balance between an industry that bolsters the economy, but that some fear is putting small town charm at risk from too many visitors.

It’s part of a discussion that’s been heard in other Wine Country favorite destinations in the Sonoma and Napa valleys.

Those warning of excessive tourism raise the specter of “Napafication” — the prospect of clogged roads, loss of rural character and out-of-scale, wine-related events.

But ask 10 people what “sustainable tourism” is and you will get 10 different answers, says Healdsburg Mayor Shaun McCaffery.

“Ultimately, at its core, it’s where residents of the town and visitors exist in harmony,” he said.

Janis Watkins, a Healdsburg attorney who is part of the coalition sponsoring a “tourism sustainability forum” 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Healdsburg Community Center, said it’s about trying to manage the industry.

“I would say Healdsburg is still a superb small town. But we have growth coming which can’t be stopped because of what’s already baked in,” she said referring to three hotels approved but not built.

Watkins calculates those new hotels will add 400 more rooms, roughly doubling the existing number among the town’s 31 hotels, motels and inns.

She and others have called for a moratorium on approving new hotels until a study can be conducted on the positive and negative impacts of tourism.

While City Council members favor a study and survey of tourism’s effects, there does not appear to be support for a moratorium.

“You take tourists out of the town and you will see property values and everything else fall,” said City Councilman Gary Plass.

“It’s what our business is, what’s kept up our standard of living and funds park and recreation” programs.

Longtime residents like Plass remember a much different time in Healdsburg decades ago, when there were boarded up storefronts around the historic Plaza and biker bars symptomatic of the ailing business district.

With the help of urban planners and architects, the City Council in the early 1980s adopted a goal to develop tourism to jump-start the economy and take advantage of Healdsburg’s scenic setting and the viticulture in nearby valleys.

The plan worked.

“We kind of live in this Eden that for the longest time we didn’t know we had. All of a sudden we’re on the map,” McCaffery said. While Sonoma County is a tourism destination, he said Healdsburg is “sort of (a) crown jewel.”

In addition to wine, he said “we have amazing restaurants and a lot of fruits and vegetables and livestock grown around here, served up in the local restaurants that are the best in the world.”

The debate over the visitor-serving industry has played into the decision whether the City Council should renew the Tourism Improvement District, created five years ago by hoteliers to promote and market Healdsburg as a destination.

Some say it’s done too good a job and should be dissolved, or have its mission altered to ease some of tourism’s impacts.

More than 90 California destinations have similar districts, and in Healdsburg it’s funded with an added 2 percent tax on room rates that generates more than $500,000 annually.

Although it’s considered a self-tax by hoteliers on their guests, the city administers it and the City Council has to approve it.

Council members appear receptive to the idea of having the hotel industry redirect some of the money to promote the city as a destination.

Public bathrooms, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and parking lot shuttle buses are among the suggestions for new ways to spend some of the revenue.

Vice-Mayor Brigette Mansell said the money also could be directed toward renovation of the Cerri property, a $5 million-plus project to reimagine an old fruit-packing warehouse as a venue for public events to take pressure off the highly used Plaza.

Mansell wants to see a city study done on tourism impacts before the Tourism Improvement District gets renewed. Not just economic data on the number of jobs and revenue the industry creates but the question of “livability,” such as how tourism affects residents’ ability “to shop, park and go out to dinner.”

When it comes to promoting Healdsburg, “we don’t want it to be just wine and cheese and Single Thread,” she said, in reference to the new, pricey restaurant touted as the height of exquisite farm-to-table cuisine.

“I can’t dine there and I live here,” she said.

It may be time to spend the promotion money on other types of businesses, or cater to other types of visitors, according to Mansell.

“Everybody is looking at what we can do to diversify, so we’re not just stuck in a pattern,” she said.

Representatives of the hotel industry and Tourism Improvement District are willing to use funds to offset some of the impacts of tourism to a limited degree.

“Rather than 80 percent to marketing, we could have a set percentage to call it, say, ‘community improvements.’ But it has to be legally defensible,” said Brian Sommer, general manager of the four-star Les Mars Hotel and president of the Tourism Improvement District. ”The majority of the funding has to go back toward benefiting the members of the district.”

The district’s overriding purpose has been to improve the rate of hotel occupancy, increasing what the industry calls “heads in beds.”

“We are obviously pro-growth. We want to grow tourism in Healdsburg, no question,” he said, but “we don’t want to grow tourism at the expense of the local community.”

With some residents at City Council meetings calling for the elimination of the Tourist Improvement District, Sommer has pushed back, pointing out that overall room tax revenues increased by more than 27 percent between 2012 and 2016, from $2.2 million to more than $3 million.

During those years the city imposed a 12 percent room tax, which mostly goes to park and rec programs, but also into the city’s general fund. That is apart from the 2 percent tourism improvement tax.

And last November, voters in Healdsburg tacked on an additional 2 percent on hotel room rates to pay for housing programs.

That made the total Healdsburg room tax 16 percent, the county’s highest.

Some see a nexus between Healdsburg housing costs — among the highest in Sonoma County — and tourism, which attracts affluent people who want to buy a second home in town.

Housing for workers in the tourist industry is another challenge and will be part of the discussion at Wednesday’s forum.

“We’re hoping some answers start to emerge,” Watkins said.

Editor’s note: This story has a corrected number on hotels that have been approved but not yet built. There are three.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.

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