Few people understand the complexities of one of Napa Valley’s most quaint and winery-illustrious towns of St. Helena like current Mayor Geoff Ellsworth.
He is seeking re-election because as he told this reporter, “A two-year term as it is here isn’t enough time to get a comprehensive job done.” Yet Ellsworth understands the reasoning behind it. “If someone elected is a disappointment then the limited time frame of two years minimizes any potential damage.”
Even with that limitation, Ellsworth is proud of what he, city council and staff have been able to accomplish in the two-year span and as he noted.
“In my term as mayor we have faced many challenging emergency circumstances, such as wildfires, PSPS power shutoffs and COVID-19. While dealing with these unexpected and difficult events, we were still able to move forward on numerous legacy projects.”
“This includes the passing the General Plan, Ellsworth continued, beginning removal of the York Creek Dam, environmental work on the wastewater treatment plant, planning work for the downtown streetscape/sidewalk project, saving substantial legal costs, making progress on affordable housing strategies, updating zoning codes, installing downtown restrooms and bottle-filling stations and completing park upgrades.”
A native of St. Helena, Ellsworth isn’t just seeking to be re-elected to add more prestige to his family in the winemaking industry. “I was born and raised here”, he said “I know that this town and community, this entire area needs something beyond our current economic model of just agriculture and tourism for it to be sustainable further into the 21st Century.”
Early in his term as Mayor, Ellsworth voiced concerns about water. “Much of our water here in St. Helena and Napa County comes from our watershed hills. That water supports our community and our property values, yet we’re seeing continued deforestation of our watersheds for commercial use including conversion to more vineyards and that can impact our municipal water supply as well as disrupt our delicate micro-climates.“
He has been struggling to help people become aware that in a drought-sensitive state, heavy use of water for an agriculturally driven economy can spell disaster when water-scarcity looms.
Pointing to the recent COVID-19 outbreak as well as the wildfires, he emphatically said, “It’s hard getting people to discuss it. The simple fact is that once something like COVID-19 or a wildfire hits then our traditional economy of wineries and tourism is deeply impacted. Many don’t see the dangers of overdeveloping a monoculture and are only looking at the short term, yet I can clearly see that St. Helena and the entire wine growing region of Napa-Sonoma will need to have other viable options for an economy.”
Ellsworth refers to the wine country as bordering on a monoculture. That’s because of most of the revenues for Napa County traditionally relied upon the wine industry. “It is difficult for many to envision anything else, he said. Ellsworth points out. “We are in a San Francisco Bay Area County, and with that proximity we should have many options.”
To get an idea of just how much Napa County has relied on its tradition of agriculture, here are some statistics. In 2019, the value of wine grape sales was $937,961, noted John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Wine-grape Growers, headquartered in Sacramento.
In 2018, wine grapes sold were valued at $1,038,600. So, according to the Napa Agriculture Commissioner’s office, the average annual value of wine grape sales would be about $1 billion. These are simply rough estimates.
As a native of St. Helena, Ellsworth sees clearly what focusing only on wine and tourism has done. Yes, it has made the Napa Valley one of the most prosperous and prestigious regions in the State of California, if not the world, but that does not always translate to a sustainable civic model or one that fosters a balanced middle class and full spectrum community.
Last year as reported by the Napa Register, the Napa Valley Unified School District voted to close nearby Yountville Elementary School as well as Mt. George Elementary School due to a decline in enrollment.
“Our towns should be places where people live and raise families, said Ellsworth. It should not just be tourism destinations. Visitation has a place here but it must stay in balance. If we do not have schools here and people raising families we will never see a Nobel prize winner grow up here, never see another great thinker, scientist, athlete, artist or entrepreneur who grew up here. Our towns should not just be places to visit, he said, but be fostering a next generation of amazing people, that’s the true value of a town and community.”
A turning point for valley and the region was in the 1980s when Napa Valley wineries like Domain Chandon and Mondavi ascended to prominence when the California winemaking industry began to rival the wines of France.
Up until that time what had initially been family-owned and rustic became grand-upscale enterprises with multi-million dollar corporations eager to finance and have stake in the wine business.
“With schools closing in Napa County because of a decline in enrollment that says less families are living here,” noted Ellsworth. “It becomes over-committed to visitation and tourism and not a place of full community building,” Ellsworth added.
Ellsworth noted too that with only tourism, wineries and all that go with them such as hotels and retail, “Many are low wage jobs. I grew up in the wine industry here and have great pride in it, he said. But if 50 to70 percent of the economy is dependent on wineries and visitation/tourism not only does it lack the strength of a diversified portfolio, it also does not offer real opportunity for those who grow up here or are raising a family now.”
“Our community must have an economy that can be a ladder to other innovation, business and career opportunities.”
As Ellsworth continued, “This is essential for families and everyone in the community. People need to be able to afford a home, build equity and set down roots, that is how a full spectrum community and a healthy middle class are sustained.”
Because so many jobs in the area are low-wage, Ellsworth pointed out that the need for assistance services is increasing.
Currently disaster related social services and charitable outreach is managed by a collaboration of non-profits in the Napa Valley referred to as COAD – which stands for The Napa Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster. Formed in 2016 after the South Napa Earthquake and the Lake County Valley Fire, COAD is a collaboration of private and public partnerships of agencies and departments working to meet some of the most critical needs of the entire County of Napa.
Ellsworth is generally supportive of the effort and says the COAD concept has been helpful, but he realizes more structure is needed to adequately manage how dozens of non-profits and their accounting tie in with the social services of local municipalities and county administration.
With so many people dependent upon assistance provided by non-profit agencies there is an increased need for clear lines of communication and organizational accountability.A revitalized and diverse economy with a living wage would help to minimize dependency upon assistance programs.
“It’s important not to back away from this discussion even if my stance on it may be unpopular with many in the wine industry here. I know it can be contentious, he said. But Napa Valley and the surrounding area need innovation and higher paying jobs. Napa/Sonoma is not isolated, we are part of the nine counties that make up the Bay Area, This is a well educated area with the ability to think ahead on these complex issues, we can evolve in a balanced way.” said Ellsworth.
“In this San Francisco Bay Area, he continued, we have access to many other opportunities, such as bio-tech, medical-tech and high-tech industries, finance, light manufacturing and more. ”
Ellsworth sees the current use of technology for remote employment a plus. “Office work done at home or establishing smaller satellite offices from Silicon Valley or other Bay Area companies that fit the scale of our towns should be a possibility. That would be ideal in a town like St. Helena to compliment and strengthen our current economy and offer true opportunity to our next generations” he said.
When this reporter mentioned the recent growth of the cannabis industry as a viable option he pointed out. “ I recognize beneficial uses of cannabis, but just as with any industry we have to weigh impacts regarding our community, environment and water sources.”
Also he pointed out, as with any intoxicant, including alcohol, “we have to consider a balanced approach and be wise with decisions regarding cultivation and distribution. In our small town we have little margin if our decisions are not fully weighed so it is important to look for precedent from other places. We want to be sure people have access as they voted for with Prop. 64, he said. But we must do so with consideration.”
Pointing to Colorado and its legalization of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use, Ellsworth said. “Cannabis can bring in jobs, revenue and other benefits. But it will also bring health, environmental and legal problems. One of my concerns is the impact of cannabis on our youth with issues such as vaping”.
While Ellsworth has great respect for the heritage and traditions of his small hometown he also recognizes the need for innovative evolution.
“We as a community, a region, have to pay close attention to the future. The pandemic, the wildfires have really jolted us to think more closely.”
This is something wineries and grape-growers will have to contend with in the months ahead. “We commissioned an analysis that determined the statewide impact of the pandemic on wine grape sales would result in $437 million in lost sales for growers, said Aguirre. Again, that’s a statewide number, he surmised. The average annual value of the wine grape crop in California is about $4 billion.”
Without question, the impact COVID-19 will have upon the future will not only touch agriculture but just about all business state as well as nationwide.
Ellsworth continues to be pro-active and engaged in all aspects of his position as mayor of St. Helena during the current Glass Fire situation and as he heads towards the upcoming elections with ballots going out on Oct 4 towards the Nov. 3, elections.
He said, “ Our community needs someone who cares about the long term balance and viability of our town. I have a deep background here and an understanding of how we need to prepare for the future. Leadership means being in front of the issues and that’s where my thinking is.” To learn more about Geoff Ellsworth and his campaign visit his web site.