Healdsburg Center for Animals begins new life as shelter after troubled beginning

Healdsburg’s new animal shelter is up and running after a four-year delay that embroiled the facility in turmoil, including a contractor bankruptcy and the dissolution of its former nonprofit operator.|

After more than four years of sitting empty and tantalizingly close to completion, Healdsburg’s animal shelter is up and running.

The newly christened Healdsburg Center for Animals, a modern, airy shelter off Westside Road, is welcoming the public with an open house today from noon to ?4 p.m. that will feature food and music, as well the dogs and cats that are micro-chipped, spayed, neutered and ready for adoption.

“It’s really great. It’s been a long time coming for the Healdsburg community,” said Cindy Roach, executive director for the Sonoma Humane Society, which assumed ownership of the unfinished building in 2014 from the troubled Healdsburg Animal Shelter organization.

The Humane Society took over the city contract to care for stray and homeless animals, then put up approximately $500,000 of its reserves to complete the mothballed 7,500-square-foot building.

“They’ve done an extraordinary job. The city is extremely thrilled,” Healdsburg Mayor Tom Chambers said Thursday. “They turned what was a pretty bad situation into a wonderful outcome.”

He said the Humane Society took on more than it bargained for when it inherited the unfinished building, which had design and construction issues.

Rooms have been remodeled to make them more pet-friendly, especially for dogs that originally were going to be in a big area with 18 kennel runs that can be noisy and stress-?inducing for the animals. Gone is the kennel model.

“We didn’t feel it was the most humane option,” Healdsburg Center development officer Nicollette Weinzveg said on a tour of the new shelter. “We wanted an environment more like home than a dog run.”

Dogs are housed in glass-walled rooms, and the former kennel area, now with a rubberized floor, serves for dog behavior and training assessment, kitten and rabbit play, classes and community meetings.

“It’s a gorgeous facility. I’m really impressed,” said Martha Hetzner, a retired teaching assistant who recently moved to Healdsburg and decided to pop into the new shelter and check it out this week.

“I’d love to volunteer here,” she said, adding that she looks forward to interacting with cats that are waiting to be adopted.

“I miss the one-on-one with kittens,” she said. “They need a lot of socialization before they’re adopted out.”

The now defunct, nonprofit Healdsburg Animal Shelter began the building project with the intent to replace its cramped, antiquated facility across the road at the city’s corporation yard with a new shelter funded by a $2.9 million donation from the estate of the late vintner Rodney Strong and his wife, Charlotte.

Strong’s armchair occupies a prominent spot inside the lobby of the new shelter along with a portrait of the giant mastiff dogs the couple loved to raise and show.

But before there could be a ribbon-cutting for the center, there was what some describe as a “perfect storm” of events that seemed to doom the project, which would eventually cost more than $4 million.

In 2011, as the building neared completion, the general contractor, Syd Kelly Construction, went bankrupt and work stopped. Subcontractors filed liens to try and recover what they were owed, and the Healdsburg Animal Shelter filed a lawsuit against the contractor.

Then doubts were raised about the shelter’s avowed no-kill policy after a couple of well-publicized incidents involving dogs brought to the smaller existing shelter.

Around that time, the organization had gone through four executive directors in a relatively short span and there was high turnover and infighting on the board of directors.

Money to finish the shelter project dried up along with ?community support and donations.

Eventually, the legal matters were resolved, with $142,000 left over from court settlements to apply toward completing the building. The Humane Society decided to dip into its reserves to get the shelter open, even though some finishing touches are still missing, such as landscaping and an outside dog exercise area.

“We wanted to get the faculty finished first and demonstrate we are invested in this venture with Healdsburg,” said Executive Director Roach.

Until the new building was ready for occupancy in early April, the Humane Society operated for more than a year out of two trailers next to the unfinished shelter where residents could surrender or adopt animals, be reunited with lost pets and pay for licensing.

But dogs weren’t kept overnight. They were sent back to Humane Society’s headquarters off Highway 12, east of Sebastopol, which also has an animal hospital that will continue to serve Healdsburg pets that need complex medical procedures.

The Petaluma Animal Services Foundation which handles stray, vicious and injured Healdsburg animals under a separate $96,500 contract with the city, operated in a trailer before but is now located inside the center.

Going forward, the Humane Society expects to be heavily dependent on community donations to support the $365,000 annual operating budget for ?the Healdsburg Center and its eight employees. There are also about 20 volunteers at the facility.

The Humane Society has a $138,500 contract with the City of Healdsburg to shelter animals, but that leaves a gap of about $235,000 to cover operating expenses. We are reaching out to the Healdsburg community for their support and trying to help us bring the shelter to life,” Weinzveg said.

The two officials are optimistic financial support will be there.

“Everyone seems very happy to see the building up and running and have Sonoma Humane Society there,” Roach said. “Everybody has been warm, welcoming and supportive.”

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

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