With Russian River Brewing's Pliny the Younger on tap, Windsor grapples with wider embrace of tourism

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Starting next week, Windsor merchants and residents have been told to prepare for thousands of daily visitors descending on the town in hopes of ordering a glass of Pliny the Younger at the new pub of Russian River Brewing Co.

The acclaimed beer’s annual release will mark another debut for the 10-acre brewery campus, opened in October at the intersection of Mitchell and Conde streets, and a giant step for Windsor onto the world stage of craft beer enthusiasts, whose yearly February pilgrimage to Sonoma County for Pliny the Younger has an economic impact of $3.4 million, according to a 2018 figure.

The rush of revenue and visitors at the Russian River pub, already a commercial anchor in Windsor, has been welcomed by the town’s civic leaders, who’ve long wanted to grow its economy and tap into Sonoma County’s lucrative $2.1 billion tourist sector.

But with that move come looming questions for the town of 27,000, incorporated in 1992 as a largely bedroom community just north of Santa Rosa. It is now grappling with just how extensively it embraces a tourism sector typically associated with the county’s more well-known destinations: Healdsburg and Sonoma, the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast.

To serve the influx of visitors expected to arrive for the Feb. 1 Pliny release — Russian River Brewing expects up to 20,000 patrons at its Windsor site alone over the two-week event — the town is launching a free downtown shuttle service. The aim is to reduce vehicle traffic around popular destinations, including the town’s breweries.

The larger goal is keeping visitors in town after they visit one of the hot spots, said Mayor Dominic Foppoli.

It’s a reflection of Windsor’s attempt to cash in on the Wine Country buzz and capture more tourism revenue.

“We really want to have a connection to Wine Country and want that tax revenue to be honest,” said Councilman Sam Salmon, a seven-term Windsor representative. “We have to be really careful to make sure this doesn’t change the feeling of the town but does provide some tax support because we have a lot of families in Windsor and a high cost of living.”

The 22-seat shuttle buses, set to begin service later this month, are being funded by the town and will operate on a two-month trial basis at a cost of $42,000. The route will take riders along Highway 101 and weave through downtown and the beverage district known as Artisan Alley. Stops will include the Hampton Inn, Barley and Bine Beer Cafe and the Grand Cru tasting rooms.

After two months, staff will review the program’s performance with the business community and transportation provider, Pure Luxury Transportation of Petaluma, said Ken MacNab, Interim Town Manager.

“This is an amazing opportunity during the release of Pliny the Younger for visitors and residents alike to explore our town, which I always say is the greatest town in America,” said Foppoli who took a lead role in developing the shuttle program. “We have all these incredible shops and wineries and breweries and distilleries and all of it is right in the middle of town, so it’s a win-win-win for so many reasons.”

Supporters include Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing, who saw it as way to promote Windsor’s growing network of food-and-beverage destinations.

“People could be inspired to hop on the SMART train to come up to our brewery and then visit the other ones in Windsor and shop and eat dinner,” Cilurzo said. “This is very innovative for a town to do this and I can’t think of any other municipality that has a program similar to this.”

Council members emphasized at their Jan. 15 meeting that the shuttle service and the wave of Pliny tourists were temporary. The town remains open to its approach to a wider array of tourism business.

“We will do everything we can to keep our small-town character,” Salmon said. “We need to be mindful that the town is really there to reflect the characters that live there and that the quality of life is associated with the success of local businesses.”

It’s cautionary note increasingly sounded in Healdsburg and Sonoma, with downtowns now dominated by tourism-oriented businesses, including scores of hotels and tasting rooms. Both cities have experienced a pronounced backlash from community members demanding greater focus on services and land-use oriented for residents.

Windsor’s business-friendly attitude hasn’t sparked that level of debate. Town leaders are looking forward to the windfall of tourism-related revenue to bolster the town’s budget. In past years, most of the Pliny the Younger spending stayed in Santa Rosa, where Russian River Brewing has its original pub.

“But this year in Windsor we have the opportunity to keep it in the town,” Cilurzo said.

“Anything we can do to promote visiting Windsor is our objective and also to spread the love to other like-minded businesses,” said Chris Lynch, co-owner of Mutt Lynch Winery.

Lynch and his wife, Brenda, have been operating a tasting room in downtown Windsor for five years. Although they live in Calistoga, Lynch said they were drawn to Windsor’s charm and its potential when they were deciding where to establish their business.

“Now is the right timing for this shuttle after the Russian River brewery opening last fall,” Lynch said. “We are committed to the community and our business within it.”

Some businesspeople in town are a bit more wary of the risks that could come with a tourism boom.

“We have a lot of passion for this town and a steady economic growth for this community,” said Amy Levin of St. Florian’s Brewery. A careful embrace of tourism, she said, would preserve it as a place for families to raise children while retaining its welcoming stance to outsiders, showing off what she called Sonoma County’s “diamond in the rough.”

“Windsor is not just about Summer Nights on the Green,” Levin said. “There are amazing small businesses in Windsor to visit in between the big events we host because visiting other locations is how you can best support a town.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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