Plaza Park

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Update: According to Commissioner Herrod, SD Media Productions has withdrawn their application for their proposed event in May, 2022. Consequently, the item will not go before the Healdsburg City Council.

Healdsburg Parks and Recreation Commissioners voted 5-2 against a request from SD Media Productions to use Plaza Park for a proposed weekend-long wine tasting and food special event on May 20-22, 2022.

The motion to not recommend the event for approval will move forward to the Healdsburg City Council for their consideration. Commissioners Steven Maduro and Michiko Conklin held the dissenting vote in the motion.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Lacey Scott had to recuse herself from the discussion and the motion due to a conflict of interest via her husband who works for Jackson Family Wines, a potential sponsor for the event.

While the event applicant made several modifications to the event proposal, such as shortening the amount of time the Plaza will be in use and changing some components of the event set up, commissioners were concerned about the waivers to the city’s special events policy needed for the event, the event’s impact on the Plaza and the precedent the event would set of allowing a for-profit event in the Plaza.

The special event review process included a staff review of the event application with the applicant and the city special event review team — which includes members from the community services department, the fire department, the police department and the planning and building department — and a determination of conformity to policy and municipal code.

If the proposed event is compliant to city codes and if no special exemptions are needed then the event permit is issued. If the special event is determined not to be in compliance, then historically the process has been to move the application forward to the parks and rec commission and the city council for consideration. However, per city policy, the correct process is to have staff formally deny the request and the applicant can then appeal to the commission and the council.

In this case, a specific denial was not issued to the applicant for this event, however, the historical process of forwarding the item to the commission for consideration was followed.

“This event is being proposed by a non-Healdsburg, … outside entity and so that brings some different dynamics with it,” said Healdsburg Community Services Director, Mark Themig.

In December of 2020 the Healdsburg City Manager’s Office received an initial inquiry regarding the idea of the event.

On Feb. 25, 2021, an introductory meeting was held with the applicant, community services staff and Healdsburg City Manager Jeff Kay to discuss the scope of the proposed event and provide application papers. Themig said the city received the application on March 12.

“From that point, Matt Milde in his role coordinated and began the internal process of meeting with different staff groups, talking about the issues and things that need to be considered. We scheduled your first review of it to get feedback on May 12,” Themig said. “The event organizer got feedback back, made changes and is presenting a revised application at this special meeting.”

The proposed event — which is being called the Sonoma County Wine & Food Experience — is a weekend-long event with fine food, art and wine from local wineries, eateries and art galleries at satellite venues across Healdsburg.

Part of the event, called the Grand Tasting, would take place in the Plaza and in surrounding streets and would be a four-hour ticketed event drawing approximately 2,000 attendees.

Corresponding events, like food demonstrations and wine tastings, would be held at various other locations throughout the city in conjunction with the Grand Tasting, so it’s estimated that around 750 people would be in the Plaza during the Grand Tasting as attendees migrate from one event location to another.

The event was proposed to take place on Saturday, May 21, 2022 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and would feature wine seminars with local wineries, cooking demonstrations with food sourced from local farms, wine and food sampling, live music and farmers market vendors.

According to Milde of the Healdsburg Community Services Department, the applicant has considered hosting the Grand Tasting at alternative venues, however, they wish to get approval for use of the Plaza.  

Event set up would start on Friday. Surrounding the event would be a wine-barrel fence. The sidewalks would remain open for businesses, however, Plaza Street and Matheson Street would be used for wine and food booths and Center Street would be used for a loading and staging area.

Revisions to the application include using half of the Plaza on May 20 and the entire Plaza on May 21 instead of using half of the Plaza for three to five days and the whole Plaza for two days; including farmers with the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, Healdsburg High School Future Farmers of America and the Healdsburg High School Garden Club as community impact benefactors of the event in addition to other organizations like Farm to Pantry; and using pop-up tents, tables, a large sponsor tent, and a decomposed granite food station in lieu of large buildouts, elevated festival booths and a paella station.

The revised application also states that there will be no heavy wooden stages or platforms and tents will be arranged to help keep foot traffic off of the turf.    

Based on the scope of the event, several waivers to the city’s special events policy, including a request for beer and wine service in the Plaza, would need to be granted in order for the event to take place in the Plaza as proposed.

Five waivers would have to be granted for the event:

-Special Events Policy 1.a - Request to host an event that is not sponsored or managed by a Healdsburg based 501 C 3 nonprofit organization.

-Special Events Policy 2.a - Request to waive the 24-hour special event use restriction.

-Special Events Policy 3.b & 10.a - Request to restrict access to Plaza Park.

-Special Events Policy 3.c - Request to host an event that occurs between November to May.

-Special Events Policy 5.a & 4.h - Request for alcohol service in Plaza Park.   

Additionally, since the organizer is not a Healdsburg-based nonprofit, they have proposed to support the local community by making a minimum charitable contribution of $125,000 to the community via fundraising to help local farmworkers with affordable housing and scholarships for the Healdsburg Future Farmers of America.

A minimum of $100,000 would go to the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation for farmworkers and the other $25,000 would go to a scholarship fund that the organizer hopes to set up for socioeconomically challenged students who want to get into agriculture.

 There would also likely be a special auction at The Matheson to benefit the Healdsburg Future Farmers and the aforementioned scholarship.

“This is a big ask and I am not convinced that I see enough reason to grant every exemption to every policy we have for a primarily for profit event,” said Commissioner Ron Dobley.

If SD Media Productions’ request to use the Plaza for the Grand Tasting is approved they will then have to submit a post event report that details the impact and contributions to Healdsburg.

There would also be several conditions of approval such as signing a COVID-19 liability waiver for facility use, providing COVID-19 safety protocols, providing traffic and safety installations, providing medical service on site, participating in regular meetings with city staff and providing updated insurance and event reminders to surrounding businesses.

“We took your advice seriously and went back and spoke to our production team and our advisory board to try to say how can we minimize the impact to the community, increase the benefits and make this better for all of Healdsburg,” said Steve Dveris, CEO and president of SD Media Productions, LLC. “The whole idea of doing this event in the first place was that it was going to be a great thing for the community, honor the agricultural roots of Healdsburg and elevate all of Sonoma County and the brand of Sonoma County, showcase the chef talent and talk about the new hotels and venues.”

He said if approved, he would like to make this an annual event.

Commissioner Jackson Boaz asked why the commission should take the big step to suspend the rule to allow for a for-profit event in the Plaza.

“It is unprecedented, I understand that. The whole idea of doing this event benefits Healdsburg in ways that are going to last for years and years to come. One of the community members recently said, ‘Why do we need to have the hotels filled because they’re filled up in May anyway,’ but the idea of doing a food and wine festival this size is that you’ll be introducing people to Healdsburg for the first time. They will be discovering this amazing gem of a place and will be wanting to return,” Dveris said.

He added that tourism tax dollars from hotel fees would also be beneficial for the community services fund, which is solely funded by the city’s Transit Occupancy Tax.

Dveris said he would look at taking the event to another city or a private area if the event request is denied.

While there were a few residents in favor of the event, there were many who spoke vehemently against the event during the public comment period.

The overall concern from residents was the precedent that the commission would be setting by allowing a for-profit event and by allowing the five waivers to already well established city event policies and mandates. 

“My comments boil down to four words, not here, not now. I don’t think this commission wants to be a guinea pig. He’s asking for five waivers. If the commission and the city council grants five waivers for one thing there will be other people knocking on the door to ask for waivers and once you start a precedent I don’t know what happens… I think this is way too big of an event for it to work as it is structured now,” said resident Valerie White.

Mark McMullen said on paper the idea looks good, however, there are concerns and questions regarding the event.

“On paper I like this idea, but I have a lot of questions on how this will benefit Healdsburg, I have questions about how this might tie in to our arts and culture master plan, I have questions about how the Latinx community and Corazón will be involved. I have a lot of questions, but those questions aren’t on the table tonight. What we are discussing is giving a for-profit company with no ties to Healdsburg to the use of our Plaza Park. I am puzzled as to why SD Media hasn’t partnered with a local nonprofit to co-sponsor this event,” McMullen said.

He suggested that the applicant look at having the event at a larger, private venue such as the Villa Chanticleer.

Bruce Abramson was concerned with the three street closures related to the event, however, one resident who went by the name Brian, said he liked the fact that the event would support future farmers.

Marilyn Joyce said it feels like the farm workers are being used.

“This is about money, not integrity. I would rather see the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association pay living wages than have these mega events that are sold as a philanthropic event. The Plaza belongs to us and I don’t like the idea of selling it off to the highest bidder,” Joyce said.

Many of the commissioners' comments echoed the public comments.

“I really think that the policies that we have that protect our park, they speak for themselves and if they don’t speak to you, you should understand that a lot of thought and work went into those and they are very meaningful. It’s hard to turn down the kind of money that’s been talked about as far as TOT and nonprofits, but, I think if this event was smaller and wasn’t for profit then there would be a lot of great elements in there that could work… We don’t need an event that doesn’t fit our town to provide more,” said Commissioner Chris Herrod.

Commissioner John Lambert said the purpose of Plaza Park is for the community, it shouldn’t be used for a for profit event. He added that there are other ways the community can support future farmers and the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation.

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