To those who have led the rise of high-end tourism in downtownNapa, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts is themost successful of failures. A decade ago, the future of downtown Napa s tourism businessseemed to rest on the gleaming museum to wine, food and the arts.Steve Carlin, who would go on to build the Oxbow Public Market, sawhis future in sharing Copia s mission even down to sharing itsparking lot. Napa appeared to be an emerging community, even though it hadn thappened yet, and Copia was a big part of the change, Carlin saidlast week. Carlin had been on the team that developed the San Francisco FerryBuilding into a retail showpiece. |
Two years later, in 2005, hebegan planning to recreate its mix of high-end food sellers inNapa s Oxbow District, next to Robert Mondavi s shrine to finewines and cuisine. Carlin and the other planners for what became the Oxbow PublicMarket were hardly alone in hitching their dreams to Mondavi sproject on First Street. Hoteliers, restaurateurs andwine-tasting-room owners gradually flocked to a once-sleepydowntown district, hopeful the $55 million museum that opened inNovember 2001 would give tourists a reason not to pass the city byon their way to the long-established Upvalley wineries and resorts. In the end, however, those who followed Copia downtown were forcedto stand on their own. The museum closed in 2008 after seven years, beset by lowattendance and a multimillion-dollar debt.
The hoped-for jewel in arevived downtown has remained empty since yet its role as acatalyst for high-end restaurants and hotels has continued. My first reaction when I moved here was, Oh my God, what have Igotten myself into? recalled Kurt Nystrom, who left a Miamimuseum in 1998 to become Copia s first chief operating officer. Robert Mondavi, whose namesake winery accelerated Napa County srise to winemaking and tourism fame from the 1960s onward, hoped touse Copia to bring wine country s allure south to the city ofNapa. But Nystrom, in his first few months on the job, feared thatthe rough Oxbow neighborhood a collection of modest bungalows,empty lots and decrepit buildings would have trouble wooing winecountry tourists away from the Upvalley.
I kept hearing over and over, Why are you putting this in thecity? No one goes to the city. People come to the Napa Valley, notthe city. Everyone drives past the (Highway 29) exits, saidNystrom, now chief operating officer of the San Francisco Museumand Historical Society. Meanwhile, Harry Price was sitting on stalled plans to bring shopsand eateries downtown to a 19th-century industrial site at the footof Main Street along the Napa River. For years, he had found few toshare his vision, least of all bankers to fund it.
We got into the car and my wife said, Why not do something herewhere you can make a difference? recalled Price of the day hediscovered the Napa Mill complex. By 1995, Price, a developer who had moved to Napa in 1984 andopened an industrial park in American Canyon, had scaled up hisambition for Napa Mill. He dropped plans for a factory outlet mallin favor of a hotel and storefronts for higher-end shops. Butfinancing was painfully slow until Robert and Margrit Mondavibegan publicizing their dreams for a wine and food museum notUpvalley, but in downtown Napa s humbler environs. At that point, we went from being on a curvy mountain road toseeing the hills get flatter, the road get wider, Price saidabout his sudden ability to get financing.
With a $10 million loanin hand, CDI Companies, in which Price is a principal, was able toopen the Napa Mill development in June 2000, more than a yearbefore Copia received its first visitors. When more than 10,000 people passed through Copia s doors on Nov.18, 2001, its place as the rock of a new tourism hub seemed secure. I believe this is the cornerstone, then-Mayor Ed Hendersonproclaimed at a celebration that featured Mondavi, state officialsand the ambassadors of France, Italy and Greece. A downtown parade led by high school marching bands and theAnheuser-Busch Clydesdales led spectators to the museum s 12-acregrounds, adorned by Copia s curved-roof modernist structure andfronted with gardens.
Visitors dined at the in-house restaurantinspired by Julia Child, Julia s Kitchen, sipped wines from 100different vintners, and watched musicians and even a pyrotechnicart piece composed of burning matches. But the honeymoon between Copia and its visitors would not lastlong. Consultants hired by the museum s board of directors predicted thelandmark could attract about 300,000 paying customers annually,according to Nystrom. But only about 230,000 visited in 2002, thevenue s first full year, and attendance fell steadily.
Directors pointed to what they called the unfortunate timing ofCopia s birth, just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorattacks dampened air travel and tourism across the U.S. Criticspointed to what they called tone-deaf missteps in the museum searly years ticket prices of $12.50, a controversial Spanish artdisplay that included figurines of people defecating andconfusion about whether Copia s focus should fall on wine, cuisineor fine arts. To the west of the museum, Carlin was germinating plans for theOxbow Public Market.
He believed that his food market and Copiacould fortify each other. At the market, you would have the (ingredients) available and thesocial experience of great food and wine, and at Copia you wouldhave the educational component, the cooking facilities, thetraining and Julia s Kitchen, all coupled together with thegardens, he said. For all of us at the time, we thought thecombination would be very strong. Oxbow Market opened in January 2008, poised to absorb visitorscrossing the parking lot from its more famous peer.
But all notionsof symmetry came to a sudden halt 10 months later. When Copia closed, one of the first impressions was that if Copiacouldn t make it, how would Oxbow make it? Carlin said. Wewere out there on our own. We had to operate completely independently now, and all thethings I hoped Copia would bring were no longer going to occur. Wecouldn t use the garden space or attraction of special events likeFriday night movies, or Julia s Kitchen.
All that was gone. With the tap of out-of-towners no longer flowing straight toOxbow s doorstep, Carlin turned his attention to Napans themselves many of whom had felt ignored by Copia. Bypassing traditionaladvertising, the market ran its own event promotions, circulated anewsletter to shoppers and began a locals night on Tuesdaysoffering discounts to Napa residents. With no central attraction to pull in tourists by the hundreds ofthousands, Carlin knew popularity had to be built from the insideout. We focus all our attention on the local people, he said.
Webelieve that local people have to support (the market) before thevisitors can catch on. With the prospect of more tourists discovering Napa, the Westinhotel chain in 2006 began construction of a hotel within walkingdistance of Copia, positioning itself to take in wine-lovingtourists. By the time the Westin Verasa Napa on McKinstry Street accepted itsfirst guests in September 2008, its general manager, Don Shindle,had seen enough of Copia s travails to try to make the hotel moreself-sufficient. Westin managers promoted the Napa hotel sconference space and restaurant services to attract business andmeeting groups.
Our thought was that if something bad happened there (at Copia),we d need to embrace the rest of downtown, Shindle saidWednesday. It took Copia out of the equation, once we knew it wasclosing. Everyone here adjusted. Al Jabarin had entered the wine business in 1994, but only onlineat first. After more than a decade running the wine-sales site CalWine.com , he decided to make the jump to purveying wines in person.Copia s presence on the east side of downtown seemed to indicatethe moment was right.
As he prepared to buy a Main Street storefront in 2007, Jabarin smain worry was not Copia s financial drought, but Napa Riverflooding, which had damaged his online sales office on SilveradoTrail three times. Copia s most durable legacy may have been the push it gave to thecity s flood control project, which was launched in 1998 whenvoters approved a flood control sales tax, Jabarin said. I wouldn t have invested in (the wine bar) if this project hadnever gone through, he said in the lounge of 1313 Main Street,which opened last year. Without flood control, all progress hereis built on soft sand. The flood project, though less glamorous than Copia, was arguably amore important boost for merchants like Jabarin, who otherwisewould have shied away from properties near the Napa River.
The Mondavis promise to pump millions into a riverfront touristattraction drew enough merchants to follow that example and createthe need for improved flood control, according to Jennifer LaLibert , the city s economic development manager. Copia put a flag in the ground to say, This is a place peopleneed to come (visit) from far and wide, said La Libert , whojoined the Napa staff the year of Measure A s passage. In mymind, it created the impetus for other landowners to invest in theriverfront as well. Throughout the 2000s, the tourist path Copia had laid downgradually became more crowded. Adorning downtown were an increasingnumber of high-end eateries, a restored Napa Valley Opera House andUptown Theatre, the mixed-use Riverfront complex on the Napa River,and the Avia Hotel on First Street.
For Copia, however, the rise of a new tourist district came toolate. The center closed abruptly on Nov. 21, 2008, after its leadersfailed to find a buyer for a complex that by then was $78 millionin debt. Cheaper tickets, programming changes and a last-ditchreduction of hours to three days a week could not save the museum,which filed for bankruptcy two weeks later.
A liquidation auctionthis past April stripped Copia of most of its remaining equipmentand fixtures. The one-time hope for Napa tourism sits mute and locked, at theedge of a neighborhood some of its followers credit it withenergizing even in defeat. The vision of Copia rubbed off on the area, La Libert said. The notion that downtown Napa can be a destination of wine orfood regardless of if Copia succeeded or failed people boughtinto that vision and you see it still.
So the momentum isn t lost, and we still have high-qualityrestaurants and places for people to walk to, taste wine, see art,experience entertainment. Copia set the bar for all that. It was revolutionary, a gutsy idea, Jabarin said. I wouldn tbe here now if that project weren t there first.
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