Nestled at the base of the Vaca Mountains in western Yolo County, the little city of Winters has gone from thriving farm hub to down-on-its-luck small town to a mini-mecca for travelers from Sacramento, the Bay Area and beyond in recent years.
Now city officials say that after a break in development during the recession, they’re ready to write the next chapter in Winters’ history with a new downtown boutique hotel that occupies half a city block. Groundbreaking is set for this fall.
“It’s the last key ingredient to making downtown Winters a destination,” said Cole Oganda, a fourth-generation Winters resident and proprietor of the Preserve Public House, a pub that opened in 2011 and exudes cool with its barn-meets-industrial decor. “I hear all the time that people would come here more often and for longer if they had a place to stay.”
Like other eating and drinking establishments in Winters, Preserve serves wine, craft beer and vegetables produced in the city’s surrounding farmland and rolling hills. The bounty has made Winters a tourist draw and raised its regional profile in the past decade.
One thing the city has been lacking, however, is a larger place for visitors to stay. Refusing to sprawl along the nearby Interstate 505 corridor, the city lacks even a single chain hotel. There are just two small bed and breakfasts, and those who want to stay overnight often have to drive 20 minutes to nearby Davis or Vacaville.
It’s not much fun to make that drive when all tourists want to do is drink the local tempranillo wines, play bocce and retire for the evening, preferably by walking to their accommodations, business owners and city officials said.
Beyond the local food and beverages, a couple of successful wedding venues require lodging for large parties. And soon, a major Pacific Gas & Electric training center will break ground outside Winters, bringing throngs of workers who need housing during the week.
Winters is also home to the Palms Playhouse, a legendary music venue housed in the Winters Opera House, built in the 19th century. Fans from a large swath of Northern California travel there, only to find no room at the inn.
Palms manager Dave Fleming said a hotel would attract more ticket buyers, and “it would be nice for the bands to be able to stay here” instead of in Vacaville, 15 miles south on I-505.
Not everyone is happy. Critics of the hotel plan decried the city’s decision to acquire and tear down several older buildings to make way for the hotel. One building on Railroad Avenue was the home of the Winters Express newspaper since 1947. The newspaper relocated recently to the old town library. Publisher Charley Wallace said he and his father, 96-year-old publisher emeritus Newt Wallace, have been at odds over the sale.
Others, including commentators on the Winters Express’ Facebook page, noted the break with tradition of preserving the city’s historic downtown. Decisions to install the city’s first traffic light and build a Burger King at the I-505 exit have proved controversial over the years.
Some have questioned the economic viability of building a blocklong, 73-room boutique hotel in the middle of a town with a population shy of 7,000.
One of the hotel’s developers and prospective owners, local builder Mike Olivas, said a study had shown that the PG&E training facility will generate about 16,000 room-nights a year, mainly from Monday through Thursday, while tourists will fill rooms on weekends at an average rate of $134 a night.
“The weekends are pretty busy here,” said Olivas, a Winters resident.
The builder is working with a firm, Royal Guest Hotels, that owns and operates five downtown boutique hotels in Davis and Sacramento, including the Inn Off Capitol Park at 16th and N streets near the state Capitol.
The Winters hotel will have an outdoor dining area, adjacent to a back alley and just behind the Palms Playhouse, said city economic development manager Dan Maguire. Its three stories will be broken up architecturally to resemble the city’s 19th century western downtown, with its variety of single-building facades, he said.
Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry said the hotel is part of a larger plan for the city that includes the completion of a new car bridge over Putah Creek, a waterway made famous in the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Green River.” The creek is undergoing a multimillion-dollar natural restoration intended to replace stagnant green pools, created by man-made alterations to the creekbed over the last century, with pristine trout and salmon habitat, cool and fast flowing.
Another development that could benefit Winters is President Barack Obama’s decision last month to designate 330,000 acres of the mountains above the city as the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Aguiar-Curry, who went to the Oval Office to meet with the president in July, said it could generate $26 million in economic benefits to the area’s gateway cities, including Winters, over the next five years.
“Other cities talk about progress,” she said. “We get things done.”